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How to use government websites to perform free legal and legislative research

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Internet Research

The phrases “legal research” or “legislative research” often conjure up images of signing into an online subscription resource to find everything one might need; however, using subscription resources is not a viable option for all lawyers in all situations.  Luckily, several websites provide free and reliable legal and legislative information for researchers—the trick is knowing where to look for these resources, and how to utilize them.  This is where I come in, as a librarian at a government law library that is open to the public!

I have been fortunate enough, over the last few years, to be invited by the ABA Standing Committee on the Law Library of Congress to give a recurring presentation on the free legal and legislative resources available online.

In updating the presentation, I have noticed how many of these helpful websites are produced by government entities.  This is a great benefit to researchers, as they can utilize these resources without having to worry about them suddenly disappearing behind a paywall.

You can join me today at 1 p.m. for “How to Conduct Free Legal Research Online,” a webinar sponsored by the American Bar Association, Center for Professional Development, Government and Public Sector Lawyers Division, and the Standing Committee on the Law Library of Congress. I’ll be discussing where and how to locate federal materials using free online resources from governmental entities.

Let’s explore some of these resources—specifically Law.gov, Congress.gov, govinfo, and Regulations.gov.

Law.gov – A great place to begin your research

Perhaps my bias is showing a bit when I suggest that Law.gov is the best place to begin one’s research, as it is the Law Library of Congress’s website, but I stand by the recommendation. Depending on what information you seek, there are several parts of Law.gov that could help you kickstart your research.  If you are looking for legal and legislative research guides based on a multitude of subject areas, information about updates to Congress.gov, overviews of legal history, and information about presentations and symposia at the Law Library of Congress, the Law Library’s blog, In Custodia Legis, should be your first stop.  To find the information you need, simply use either the keyword search feature or the Category filter options on the left-hand side of the page.

Another resource on Law.gov that has links to legal research guides and primary materials is the Guide to Law Online.  The Guide to Law Online is a curated collection of links to free legal and legislative resources available regarding U.S. federal law, U.S. states and territories, indigenous law, and foreign jurisdictions. Each jurisdictional page includes resources in six areas: constitution, executive branch, judicial branch, legislative branch, legal guides, and general sources.

Sources for legal information in foreign countries are also available through articles and reports created by the foreign legal specialists in the Law Library of Congress’s Global Legal Research Center.  On the Current Legal Topics page, researchers can review legal research reports, generated for members of Congress and federal agencies, which compare the laws of different countries regarding varied subjects of interest.  For brief articles about cutting-edge legal topics in other countries, researchers can also search the Global Legal Monitor. Both resources include citations to the primary materials used to create the article or report, such as statutes, regulations, and court opinions, and link to those that are available online.

Primary sources can also be found via the Digitized Material link found under the Research and Reports menu option on the left-hand side of Law.gov.  There, researchers can find links to free digitized copies of the:

Many of these resources serve as the only PDF copies of these publications available online for free, without restrictions.  Using these digitized materials, in conjunction with the materials available on some of the other government websites discussed below, allows researchers to access the full collection of U.S. Statutes at LargeU.S. Code, and Federal Register volumes for free online.

Congress.gov – The official site for federal legislative information

For any lawyer wishing to do federal legislative research, Congress.gov, the official website for U.S. federal legislative information, should be one of the first websites they bookmark.   In addition to having legislative actions information for all the bills and resolutions introduced in Congress from 1973 to the present, whether or not they ultimately became law, Congress.gov contains:

All of these items can be searched by keyword using the pull-down menu to the left of the global search bar at the top of every Congress.gov screen.

For researchers interested in the federal appropriations process, Congress.gov provides an Appropriations Table that lists information about all the different types of legislative appropriation-related bills and resolutions for each fiscal year dating back to 1998, along with links to each item’s bill summary page and voting information.

For an overview regarding how to do searches in Congress.gov, please feel free to sign up for one of the Congress.gov webinars offered by the Law Library of Congress.

govinfo – A searchable repository for official government documents

A wealth of legal and legislative documents can also be found on the GPO’s new website, govinfo.  Of particular interest to researchers attempting to do legislative research, govinfo includes a large amount of congressional committee materials and statutory information, including:

In addition to documents produced by the legislative branch, govinfo contains helpful federal executive branch documents, principally copies of the Federal Register from 1960 to the present and the Code of Federal Regulations from 1996 to the present.

In light of the thousands of documents included in the govinfo database, researchers are likely best suited using either the Advanced Search page, which allows them to choose which resources they would like to search within, or the Citation Search page.

Regulations.gov – A good source for regulatory docket information

While copies of the Federal Register and the Code of Federal Regulations can largely be found on other free websites, Regulations.gov provides two unique options—the ability to see and search regulatory docket information, and the ability to submit online public comments for pending proposed rules.  Docket information, such as public comments, transcripts of town hall meetings, agency reports, studies, applications, etc., regarding a regulation, can be critical for researchers trying to determine regulatory intent.  Regulations.gov was launched in 2003, and while its pre-2003 collection is largely dependent on the participating agencies, the amount of helpful information available is truly incredible.  More information regarding how to use Regulations.gov can be found on its help page.

If you are interested in more options for free online legal research, never fear—I have only scratched the surface in this blog post.  I will be providing more examples of helpful websites that provide primary and secondary sources regarding statutes, regulations, caselaw, executive orders, and more, in my ABA Premier Speaker Series webinar titled “How to Conduct Free Legal Research Online,” on March 19, 2018.  For other legal and legislative research questions, please feel free to contact us at the Law Library of Congress via our “Ask a Librarian” service.

Barbara Bavis Barbara Bavis is the Bibliographic and Research Instruction Librarian for the Law Library of Congress. In this position, she provides legal and legislative research presentations to a wide range of patrons, including congressional staff members, federal government employees, and members of the public. She also provides legal research services to patrons, both at the reference desk in the Law Library Reading Room and via the Law Library’s Ask a Librarian service.