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Reference from Coast to Coast: Learning to Love Those 50 State Surveys

By Jan Bissett and Margi Heinen, Published on January 19, 2008

For those of us who remember the days when fifty state survey questions were foisted off on summer associates or those awaiting their bar results, the availability of electronic survey sources are a welcome addition to the print offerings of the past. But are these sources really all that different? This month we're taking a look at some of these sources of multi-state legal research. Before you begin your multi-state research, determine what you are looking for: statutes, case law or regulations. Most researchers think of statutes first, but clarify before beginning.

In the days of old when a fifty state survey of the law was requested, everyone took a deep breath and tried the Subject Compilations of State Laws or a quick and dirty approach: Shepard's Acts & Cases by Popular Name or even an almanac could get you to where you needed to be. The Martindale Hubbell Law Digest also came into play - offering a way to identify statutes was a plus but without a ready compilation the research was still time consuming. A check of ALRs, legal periodicals and other secondary sources usually encompassed the holdings available in the private law library. And then it was off to the academic or bar library collection for a look at individual state materials. With the proliferation of electronic resources and seemingly ready access to Lexis and Westlaw materials, today's survey requests should be a snap, right? Questions about topical multi-state surveys appear with enough frequency on the law-lib discussion list to counter that assumption. In fact, the appearance of a 50 state survey question on Body Piercing on Law-Lib apparently prompted Steve Anderson of the Maryland State Law Library to prepare a succinct article on 50 State Surveys for Findings (One State Down, Forty-Nine Left to Go).

Harvard Law School Library's Multi-State Legal Research outlines current internet and print resources, Lexis and Westlaw as well as selected topics with references to online or print resources. And the major players both provide multi-state statutory materials. Lexis has entered this arena with a promise of more surveys to come and an impressive list of compiled surveys listed by categories. For example, under "Attorneys", one can get compilations of the various state statutes on Pro Bono, Bar Admission and CLE and Advertising. These list the relevant state statutes, but do not attempt to provide charts describing the contents of the statutes. Both Lexis' and Westlaw's compilations of surveys fall outside of flat rate contracts, but are worth the additional cost if you are looking at time spent. Westlaw's 50-State Survey of Statutes database includes topical references from the National Survey of State Laws. Coverage of state regulations is available in Westlaw's REG-SURVEYS. Westlaw Quick Reference Guides, although dated, are available for each database and provide search tips on comparing state statutes or regulations. These guides are accessible via the Statutes and Regulations section of the West Group's User Guides. General legal websites such as Cornell or Findlaw group state materials together making individual state statutes accessible. And state related associations have lightened the research load in specific areas. Thanks to the Legislative Research Librarians at the National Conference of State Legislatures, a number of surveys on a wide range of topics are available via the NCSL 50-State Legislative Tracking Web Resources.

Don't forget print options. It is easy these days to think only of online resources, but two very reliable sources exist in print. Richard Leiters National Survey of State Laws provides assistance with basic topics while Subject Compilations of State Laws edited by Cheryl Rae Nyberg includes more specific topical coverage. A source that used to be in print, but now is only available on CD-ROM is the Martindale Hubbell Law Digest. While this source requires that you page from one jurisdiction to the next, it is helpful when one needs to quickly locate state laws (and their citations) in a number of states. Even traditional topical looseleaf services collect statutory material—our researchers consistently use BNA's Labor Relations looseleaf for charts and summaries of state labor laws. In print or online, there are still law review articles and ALR annotations to consider when other sources fail.

The advent of the Internet has probably assisted most in the area of special interest groups who compile surveys on their areas of concern. Many of these groups have created surveys for a long while, but we had to know of their existence, make phone calls and then plead for access. Now, it is this wealth of material on the Web that can give a researcher a head start on 50 state surveys. A search engine is your best friend if you are trying to ferret out a privately produced survey. If the research request is for human tissue regulation by the 50 states, for instance, the American Cancer Institute has prepared just such a study with a brief description of each state statute and its citation.

Several caveats are necessary if you use surveys from these types of sources. Don't be put off by confusion over the terms laws, statutes, and regulations. While professional law librarians are often specific about regulations versus statutes, many of these organizations use the term "regulations" to mean any form of governmental requirements. Determine for yourself if the topic may need you to look at administrative codes in the 50 states as well as statutes. In some happy instances, these private surveys include both. Evaluate the objectivity of the source. Obviously there is a vested interest in the area of research, but has it been compiled with an obvious bias and therefore may have employed some editing to show the results in the most advantageous manner. Be sure to locate the date of the survey or latest revisions. The majority of these surveys are done for a project or specific need and then not updated for several years. The researcher will still have to confirm the summary or citation is still current. Take note that not all legislatures are created equal. Some states have legislatures that meet only every other year so the material you have that looks to be a year old may, in fact, be the most current statute. StateNet provides a nifty chart each year to show what legislatures are meeting during which dates. There are 6 states with no regular session scheduled for 2008.

So, are the current sources all that different? More accessible, certainly. The "50 state survey" assignment still requires attention to detail and organizational skills if one is to avoid becoming overwhelmed. Gaining a foothold from secondary and reference sources before committing yourself to examining individual statutes will make a formidable task much easier.

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