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Free and Low-Cost Legal Research: U.S. Secondary and Primary Sources: Primary Sources

Information on where to find free or low-cost information on U.S. secondary and primary legal sources

Overview

What are Legal Primary Sources?

Primary sources of law are statutes/laws, orders, cases, decisions, and regulations. They are issued by one of the three branches of government (legislative, judicial, or executive) at either the state or federal level.

Judicial sources

Judicial sources are issued by the judiciary, and consist of opinions or case law; dockets (the filings in a case); and court rules.

Legislative sources

Legislative sources are issued at the federal level by Congress; and at the state level by the representative bodies (the names vary by state, but are most frequently referred to as Houses, Assemblies, Delegates (for the lower bodies) and as Senates (for the upper bodies)). Every state, with the exception of Nebraska, is bicameral. These sources consist of statutes/laws/codes, session laws, and legislative history (which includes hearings, amendments, prints, etc.).

Executive sources

Executive sources are issued by the executive; most of these sources are referred to as administrative sources, since they are issued by agencies. Administrative sources includes regulations/rules, proposed rules, and administrative decisions and guidance. Additionally, the President (or the Governor, at the state level) often issues statements, orders, and other papers.

How do I find Free/Low-cost Legal Primary Sources?

Fortunately, almost every source issued by the federal government is not subject to copyright; and thus is freely available to the public. If you are researching state and local governments, be aware that they vary in how much and whether they protect the documents that they issue. Unfortunately, the sheer amount of government documents issued can make it difficult to find a relevant primary source. The resources collected in the table below are just a few of the sources that provide easier access to statutes, regulations, cases, and orders.

One of the most important steps in finding primary sources is determining the jurisdiction and type of the sources you seek to find. Your research will be much easier if you can determine:

1. What jurisdiction are you in? Are you looking for federal or state materials? If state materials, which state? If federal, which district/appellate court?

2. What types of sources are you looking for? Are you looking for statutes passed by the legislature? Are you looking for cases issued by the judiciary? Are you looking for regulations or agency decisions issued by an executive agency?

If you have the answers to these questions, you will be able to navigate to the resource that will have the source you're looking for.

The tables below provide information about several sources for legal primary sources. The first table is a list of low-cost resources; the second tables are organized by branch of government and is a list of free sources.

Low-Cost Resources for Primary Sources

The sources listed in this table are available for a low cost; and some of them may be available for free through bar memberships.

Link to Source Notes & Description Types of Primary Sources Available in Source
Casemaker

Provides access to statutes and cases for federal and all 50 states; federal regulations and some federal agency decisions; and some tribal court materials. Casemaker is available through many state bars.

Note that Casemaker and Fastcase (below) merged in early 2021.

Statutes, cases, regulations, agency decisions, tribal court materials
Casetext Access to cases, statutes, regulations, agency decisions and briefs; as well as case summaries and legal analysis. Also includes a citator to confirm a case is still good law. Statutes, cases, regulations, agency decisions, court rules
DocketBird A PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records] overlay that also includes some state dockets. Federal & state dockets
Fastcase

Fastcase provides access to statutes, cases, regulations, and constitutions for federal and all 50 states; as well as to state attorney general opinions. It has an integration with Docket Alarm and NextChapter, and is available through many state bars. Includes a citator service to check whether a case is good law.

Note that Casemaker (above) and Fastcase merged in early 2021.

Statutes, cases, regulations, agency decisions, tribal court materials, state attorney general opinions
PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) PACER provides access to federal court dockets and filings, and charges fees based on the number of pages in a docket file. Federal dockets
PacerPro Provides a more user-friendly overlay to the U.S. federal PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records] system for federal dockets. Federal dockets
VersusLaw VersusLaw provides access to federal, state, and tribal cases on its lowest plan; plus access to state and federal statutes and regulations via two more comprehensive plans. Includes a citator service to check whether a case is good law. Statutes, cases, regulations, tribal cases

Free Resources for Primary Law

Judicial sources of primary law are those produced by the judiciary: case law, dockets, and rules of courts. The sources in the below table are some of the better sources for locating these resources. Coverage refers to whether the database has full access to all cases issued by a specific court.

 

Link to Source Notes & Description Source Coverage
Caselaw Access Project Housed at Harvard Law School, this site aims to convert official case law into data. It includes all federal, state, and territorial courts. Allows you to search using keywords or advanced search; you can also browse individual volumes. Coverage varies by court; earliest case is from 1658 and most recent is from 2018.
CourtListener Data and opinions from 423 jurisdictions, plus the largest collection of Supreme Court oral argument recordings. A sophisticated advanced search allows you to search by precedential status and number of cites.

U.S. Supreme Court (back to 1789) and federal specialized, appellate and district courts (date varies, with some back to 1891).

State court coverage varies widely; see the jurisdiction table.

Find A Case A search engine for cases, designed for non-lawyers (with some premium, paid content available). Use Advanced Search for more precise results.

U.S. Supreme Court and federal appellate and district courts (most back to 1930).

State appellate courts (most back to 1950s).

FindLaw: Cases and Codes A search engine of cases, both state and federal, that allows you to limit by jurisdiction and search by keyword. Advanced search of case summaries also allows you to limit by legal topic and industry (click Search case summaries). Federal and selected state cases back to 2000.
Google Scholar: Case Law Google's collection of caselaw, you can search across multiple jurisdictions, and find related articles.

U.S. Supreme Court and federal appellate and district courts; some specialized courts.

State appellate courts.

Variable coverage and dates.

Judgepedia Interactive online encyclopedia of courts and judges, includes both state and federal judges at all levels -- a project of Ballotpedia. Coverage varies by state, though it attempts to be as comprehensive as possible.
Justia Case Law & Federal Dockets & Filings

Justia collects federal and state cases, plus dockets and filings but doesn't offer a great way to search them (only by party or judge name) -- best if you already have a citation and need to access an opinion or filing.

 

U.S. Supreme Court back to 1789; federal appellate and district cases back to 1924.

State coverage varies by state; navigate to the state's page to see dates and coverage.

National Center for State Courts: State Court websites A list of links to the judicial branches for each state, including links to administrative, appellate, trial, and supreme courts. Coverage varies by state court.
Oyez An archive for the U.S. Supreme Court's oral arguments, including transcripts, illustrated decisions, and opinions. It also includes biographical information about each Justice. Almost complete coverage back to 1955.
SCOTUSblog Blog "devoted to covering the U.S. Supreme Court comprehensively," with reviews of cases argued before the court, as well as book reviews and statistics for each term. Posts back to 2002; briefs and case materials back to 2007. Also includes petitions pending before the Court.
State and Local Government on the Net A directory of official state, county, and city government websites, leading to links to individual state judicial websites, court offices, and law libraries. Coverage varies by state court.
U.S. Courts Statistics, reports, and rules of court for the federal courts, plus links to the individual websites for the Courts of Appeals, District and Bankruptcy Courts, and probation, pretrial, and federal defender offices. Coverage varies by court.
U.S. Supreme Court Access to U.S. Supreme Court slip opinions, opinions, filings, case documents, and dockets, court rules, and oral argument transcripts and audio. Opinions back to 1991; dockets and filings back to 2001. Transcripts back to 2006, and recordings to 2010.

Legislative sources are issued at the federal level by Congress; and at the state level by the representative bodies (the names vary by state, but are most frequently referred to as Houses, Assemblies, Delegates (for the lower bodies) and as Senates (for the upper bodies)). Every state, with the exception of Nebraska, is bicameral. These sources consist of statutes/laws/codes, session laws, and legislative history (which includes hearings, amendments, prints, etc.). The below sources are some of the best places to locate federal and state legislative material.

 

Link to Source Notes & Descriptions Coverage
American Memory: A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation American Memory provides access to thousands of digitized works produced by the U.S Congress from 1774 to 1875.

Bills and resolutions back to the 6th Session of Congress for the House; to the 16th Congress for the Senate; and the 18th Congress for Senate joint resolutions.

Also includes Statutes at Large from 1789 to 1845; and the U.S. Serial Set back to the 15th Congress, as well as the American State Papers (which preceded the Serial Set).

Congress.gov The "official website for U.S. federal legislative information," this site provides access to current legislation, information about the legislative process, and a wealth of links and resources related to Congress and members of Congress.

Legislation varies, from 1973 to 2009; full text bills back to 1993 (103rd Congress). Also includes committee information; and the Congressional Record back to 1995 (104th Congress).

Some executive, member, nomination, and treaty information also available. See Congress.gov Coverage dates for a complete list.

GovInfo Official publications from all three branches of government. Specifically for legislative information, find Congressional bills, Statutes at Large, the U.S. Code, various Committee materials (including Committee Prints, hearings, and reports, as well as specialized hearings); and rules and proceedings. Much more also available (such as the Constitution of the U.S.A: Analysis and Interpretation (CONAN)) Varies by type of source; Congressional bills back to 1993 (103rd Congress); Statutes at Large from 1951 (82nd Congress) to 2013 (113th Congress); Committee reports from 1995 (104th Congress) to current), as examples.
Justia: U.S. Codes & Statutes Includes links to browseable versions of state and federal codes. Coverage varies by state; doublecheck currency to ensure you are reading the most up-to-date version.
Legal Information Institute

Full text of the U.S. Constitution and U.S. Code, as well as links to state codes. Updated frequently. Allows for keyword searching and citation look up. Look for the "Current through" to determine currency.

Updated frequently; best for searching for current statutes.
Office of the Law Revision Counsel: United States Code The Office of the Law Revision Counsel prepares and organizes the United States Codes; and provides a searchable and browsable version of the most current versions of the U.S.C. (check the Currency status for updating details). Prior classification tables (which allow access to the Code through either the Public Law or the U.S.C. section) available back to 1995 (104th Congress).
Rutgers Congressional Documents Online Collection of hearings and committee prints digitized by Rutgers-Camden School of Law. Collection is continuously growing; allows for searching by keyword or by title. Selected hearings and prints from 1970 to 1999.

Executive sources are issued by the executive; most of these sources are referred to as administrative sources, since they are issued by agencies. Administrative sources includes regulations/rules, proposed rules, and administrative decisions and guidance. Additionally, the President (or the Governor, at the state level) often issues statements, orders, and other papers.

 

Link to Source Notes & Description Coverage
Administrative Decisions Links to the online sources (including FOIA Reading Rooms, decisions, and regulations and guidances, for many federal agencies. Doesn't include all federal agencies or all sites, but a fairly comprehensive source.
American Presidency Project Hosted by the University of California, Santa Barbara, provides access to presidential documents; a non-partisan source for locating presidential documents available online. Includes some information on all U.S. Presidents, and contains documents from Messages and Papers of the Presidents of the U.S. and the Public Papers of the Presidents, as well as other sources.
e-CFR Updated daily; the unofficial government version of the Code of Federal Regulations. Searchable and browsable by agency and recent changes. Also includes information about the CFR. Current version; updated every government business day.
FederalRegister.gov Officially the "daily journal of the U.S. government." Includes the Federal Register, along with detailed information about the regulatory process and how the Federal Register functions. Browse by agency, if known; a decent search function and a sophisticated citation look-up tool. Federal register back to 1994.
GovInfo.gov: Regulatory Information Access to the Code of Federal Regulations and the Federal Register, including the Index, Finding Aids, Parts Affected, and List of Sections Affected. CFR back to 1996; Federal Register back to 1936.
Justia Access to the Code of Federal Regulations and the Federal Register, plus the administrative law for the 50 states. Current version, though the federal version should be confirmed via the e-CFR (above) or via the state administrative sites.
Legal Information Institute: e-CFR Browsable access to the current e-CFR. Current version; updated frequently.
Regulations.gov Access to regulatory materials, included proposed and final rules, notices, and comments to proposed rules. Also permits members of the public to submit comments on proposed rules. Also includes detailed information about the administrative law and rule-making process. Searchable and browseable by agency. Note that not all federal agencies participate in regulations.gov. Best source for proposed and recently-finalized regulations.

Other Resources

Some resources may be useful to your research, but include multiple types of resources or other legal primary sources. Examples include: