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 are issued by the judiciary, and consist of opinions or case law; dockets (the filings in a case); and court rules.
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, or Delegates (for the lower bodies); and as Senates (for the upper bodies). Every state, with the exception of Nebraska, is bicameral. Legislative sources consist of statutes/laws/codes, session laws, and legislative history (which includes hearings, amendments, prints, etc.).
Executive sources are issued by the executive; most of these sources are referred to as administrative sources, since they are issued by administrative 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.
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 tables 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 source 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 databases for legal primary sources. The first table is a list of low-cost resources (or limited free access); the second tables are organized by branch of government and is a list of free sources.
Additionally, since primary sources are produced by the government, many governments post their resources online. Google the name of the branch of government and the type of source you're looking for (e.g. Palo Alto municipal code) to see if it's available.
The sources listed in this table are available for a low cost (or have limited free access); and some of them may be available for free through bar memberships.
|Types of Primary Sources Available in Source
|In addition to primary sources, includes case summaries, legal analysis and a citator to confirm a case is still good law. Also includes a generative AI tool.
|Statutes, cases, regulations, agency decisions, court rules, briefs. Also some secondary sources and a drafting tool
|A PACER (see below for details on PACER) overlay that also includes some state dockets. It also provides integrations with several other applications.
|Federal & state dockets
In addition to primary and some secondary sources (including vLex resources), also has an integration with Docket Alarm and NextChapter (among others), and a citator service to check whether a case is good law.
|Statutes, cases, regulations, constitutions, agency decisions, tribal court materials, state attorney general opinions; docket integration. Also some secondary sources and legal news
|With a free account, you can search a single jurisdiction's code. A paid account provides greater access and better search options.
|Municipal (county, city, tribal) codes and ordinances
|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.
|Provides a more user-friendly overlay to the U.S. federal PACER (see above for details on PACER) system for federal dockets.
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
|Ballotpedia Federal and State Courts Projects
|Formerly Judgepedia, includes information about federal and state courts and judges at all levels
|Coverage varies by state.
|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, use their API, or download bulk data.
|Coverage varies by court; earliest case is from 1658 and most recent is from 2018.
|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. Also includes RECAP, which provides access to some federal dockets; and Bots.law, to help you keep up with cases; plus several data tools.
U.S. Supreme Court (back to 1789) and federal specialized, appellate and district courts (date varies, with some back to 1891). Also includes some federal dockets.
State court coverage varies widely; see the jurisdiction table.
|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; dates vary widely (most federal back to at least 1971; most states back to ast least 1997).
|Google Scholar: Case Law
|Google's collection of caselaw, you can search across multiple jurisdictions, and find related articles. Click the Cases button below the search bar to access.
U.S. Supreme Court and federal appellate and district courts; some specialized courts.
State appellate courts.
Variable coverage and dates.
|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. Dockets back to 2004 (varying).
State coverage variable; 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.
|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.
|U.S. Supreme Court cases; complete audio coverage back to 1955; relatively comprehensive case and summary information before then.
|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 Governments (USA.gov)
|A directory of official state and local government websites, leading to links to individual state websites. Select the topic on the left, then the state, then browse the list of links.
|Coverage varies by state.
|Statistics, reports, and rules of court for the federal courts, plus links to the individual websites for the federal Courts of Appeals, District and Bankruptcy Courts, and probation, pretrial, and federal defender offices.
|Coverage varies by court; federal only.
|U.S. Courts Opinions on GovInfo
|PDF versions of federal court opinions.
|Complete coverage of federal court opinions back to 2005; and select coverage as far back as 1980s.
|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. Oral argument transcripts back to 1968; recordings to 2010.
|U.S. Supreme Court Engrossed Dockets
|Scans from the National Archives collection of engrossed (full history) U.S. Supreme Court dockets.
|U.S. Supreme Court dockets, 1791-1995, with some gaps.
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, or 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. For information about local law (such as city or county ordinances), check out the Library of Congress's Municipal Codes: A Beginner's Guide; or Google research guide local law [state/city/county, if applicable].
|Link to Source
|Notes & Descriptions
|A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation (Library of Congress)
|Access to thousands of historic digitized works produced by the U.S Congress from 1774 to 1875.
Includes Statutes at Large (varying coverage back to 1789); and the U.S. Serial Set (varying coverage between the 23rd and 64th Congress), as well as the American State Papers, 1789-1838 (which preceded the Serial Set).
See also Congress.gov (below), which also has historic Congressional materials.
|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.
Bills and resolutions from 6th to the 42d Session of Congress for the House; from the 16th to the 42d Congress for the Senate; and for both chambers from the present back to the 82d Congress (use the filters in the earlier links). Also includes resolutions, joint resolutions, and concurrent resolutions (dates vary).
Also includes committee information; (some dating back to 1993) and the Congressional Record Daily back to 1995 (104th Congress) and Bound from 1873 to 1994 (43rd to 103rd Congresses).
Some executive, Congressional member, nominations, and treaty information also available. See Congress.gov Coverage dates for a complete list.
|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)); also click Browse (either A to Z or by category) to see all of the collections.
|Dates vary by type of source; Congressional bills back to 1993 (103rd Congress); Statutes at Large from 1951 (82nd Congress) to 2017 (115th Congress first session); Committee reports (varying, as far back as 1821, 17th Congress), as examples.
|Justia: U.S. Codes & Statutes
|Includes links to browseable versions of state and federal codes.
|Coverage varies by state; double check 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 browseable 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; with some from the 2000s.
Executive sources are issued by the executive branch; 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
|Administrative Decisions Guide
|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 (including speeches). Also includes data on elections, length of speeches, and more.
|Updated daily; the unofficial government version of the Code of Federal Regulations. Searchable and browseable by agency and red lines of recent changes. Also includes information about the CFR; review the Getting Started guide for tips on searching.
|Current version; updated every government business day.
|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.
|Full, searchable text of the Federal Register back to 1994; documents pre-1994 can be accessed via citation.
|GovInfo.gov: Regulatory Information
|Access to the Code of Federal Regulations and the Federal Register, including the Index, Finding Aids, Parts Affected, the Unified Agenda, and List of Sections Affected.
|CFR back to 1996; Federal Register back to 1936 (volume 1).
|Access to the Code of Federal Regulations and the Federal Register, plus links to the administrative law for each of 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.
|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. 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.
|Varies by agency, but some information back to 2002.
Some resources may be useful to your research, but include multiple types of resources or other legal primary sources. Examples include: