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Legal Topics: Sources of Law

What Constitutes "the Law?"

Legal resources are sometimes divided into "primary" and "secondary" sources of law. Primary sources contain "the law" itself. Secondary sources are writings about the law.

Secondary sources may be books, articles, annotations or many other forms. They can be good places to begin research because they can provide background, explanation and vocabulary as well as references to the primary sources of the law.

Primary sources come from the government. They are constitutions, statutes, regulations, and decisions of the courts. They can also be the charters and ordinances of municipalities, decisions of administrative agencies and court rules.

Sources of law can also be divided into "mandatory" and "persuasive" authority. Mandatory authority is what a court must pay attention to when deciding a case. Only primary sources can be mandatory authority. For example, a Minnesota statute that applies to the case is mandatory authority in Minnesota. A Minnesota Supreme Court decision interpreting that statute would also be mandatory authority. If no mandatory authority exists, courts may listen to persuasive authority (for example, scholarly articles or books or cases from other jurisdictions) but they are not required to be persuaded by them.

Primary Sources of Minnesota Law

The Minnesota Constitution is the foundation document of Minnesota government. It can be found online and in the first volumes of Minnesota Statutes and Minnesota Statutes Annotated.

Laws passed by the Minnesota Legislature are published annually as Session Laws in Laws of Minnesota. They are available online in an archive that extends back to territorial days and in a searchable collection with the statutes and rules.

Laws passed by the legislature that are general in application and permanent in nature are arranged by subject and collected into the Minnesota Statutes. (Examples of laws that appear in Laws of Minnesota but not Minnesota Statutes would be the budget, which is in effect for only a limited period of time, and a law vacating a state road, which applies only to a limited area.)

Minnesota Statutes is the official publication by the Minnesota Revisor of Statutes Office containing all statutes currently in force that have general application and continuing effect. Minnesota Statutes Annotated is an unofficial publication which contains the same statutes and also Notes of Decisions of the courts that have interpreted the statutes and other research aids. Both publications are updated by pocket parts in the back of each volume. While the Minnesota Statutes are freely available online, the Minnesota Statutes Annotated are not. Older versions of the statutes are availble in an online archive back to 1851.

Regulations issued by Minnesota's administrative agencies are published first in the State Register. (A print subscription is available in the Law Library.) This weekly publication also includes proposed regulations. All regulations currently in force are compiled in Minnesota Rules. The rules are available online, including in a searchable collection with the statutes and session laws. An archive of older rules going back to 1982 is also online. For more information, see Researching Minnesota Agency Regulations.

Opinions of the Minnesota Supreme Court and published opinions of the Court of Appeals are published in the Northwestern Reporter and Northwestern Reporter, second series. Until 1977, Minnesota Supreme Court opinions were also published in Minnesota Reports. New opinions for the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court are released each week on the Judicial Branch website. They are also published in the Minnesota Lawyer newspaper. An archive of published and unpublished opinions beginning in May of 1996 is available on the Minnesota State Law Library website.

Primary Sources of Federal Law

The United States Constitution is the supreme law of the land. It can be found online and in the first volumes of the United States Code, United States Code Annotated and United States Code Service.

Laws passed by the United States Congress are first published as session laws in the Statutes at Large. Recent volumes are available online. The United States Code Congressional and Administrative News reprints the Statutes at Large and includes legislative history information.

Statutes that are currently in force and have general application and continuing effect are collected and arranged by subject in the United States Code. The USC is also available online. The official USC is updated by supplemental volumes that are published too slowly to be of much use. Of more use to researchers are the two unofficial annotated codes: United States Code Annotated and United States Code Service. In addition to the code, they contain annotations to decisions of the courts and other research aids. They are both updated by pocket parts in the back of each volume.

Regulations issued by Federal administrative agencies are published first in the Federal Register. Published every business day, it also includes proposed regulations and other materials. The Federal Register is also available online. All regulations currently in force are arranged by subject and compiled in the Code of Federal Regulations. CFR volumes are published annually with individual new volumes appearing throughout the year. Check the List of Sections Affected and the most current issue of the Federal Register for updates. The Code of Federal Regulations is online in an authenticated form on FDsys and in an unofficial e-CFR that is updated daily.

Decisions of the United States Supreme Court are published in the official United States Reports and in the unofficial, Supreme Court Reporter and United States Reports, Lawyers' Edition. Very recent decisions can be found in United States Law Week and online on the Supreme Court's Website. Other free Internet sources republish Supreme Court Opinions.

Federal appeals court decisions are published in the Federal Reporter. Since 2001, opinions that have not been selected for publication in the Federal Reporter can be found in West's Federal Appendix. Selected decisions of the district courts are published in the Federal Supplement and Federal Rules Decisions. The best resources for online access to federal court decisions are Lexis and Westlaw. Both services are available free of charge in the Law Library. Many decisions are also available on the Internet but there is no comprehensive search engine for them.

How many laws are there? answered by the Law Library of Congress.

Related Resources: Briefs; Enacting Clause; Updating Your Research.


DISCLAIMER:  As librarians and not lawyers, we can suggest resources but cannot give legal advice (such as which form to file), or legal opinions, (such as how a statute might apply to particular facts.)  To do so could be considered the unauthorized practice of law.  Even though we try to suggest materials that will be of help, further research is usually required to find a complete and correct answer.  For many questions, the best answer may be to consult an attorney.  For links to resources on finding an attorney click here.


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Minnesota State Law Library: Legal Topics: Sources of Law
http://www.lawlibrary.state.mn.us/lawsources.html

Last updated on March 13, 2013.
Links checked on July 17, 2012.

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