As we’ve mentioned, court records are public documents. If you remember your grade school civics class lessons, you will recall that there are three bodies that can issue laws and regulations.
- Legislatures create statutory law by passing bills that become law when signed by the executive.
- Administrative agencies create administrative law, consisting of rules and regulations issued by each agency (for example, the Environmental Protection Agency at the federal level issues regulations concerning disposal of hazardous wastes).
- The judicial branch of government issues case law, which is found in the court decisions written by judges or justices of the court system.
Sometimes you may have to find an actual legal decision or regulation for your message. Sometimes you may be able to suffice with an interpretation or “brief” of that statute or regulation as prepared by experts whose job is to comment on the law. In any case, there are certain characteristics of legal and court record information that you must be familiar with before attempting to search for a specific topic or case.
Federal statutory, administrative and case law applies to every state jurisdiction, court and agency in the country. These laws are collected, organized and made accessible through a well-established system of legal indexes, finding tools called “reporters” and databases.
Within the federal court system, there are three levels of courts performing different functions and writing different kinds of laws. These three levels are the trial level, the intermediate appellate level and the final appellate level. Each level generates information that is collected and made accessible through a series of indexes, reporters and databases.
In addition, the Supreme Court began issuing rulings digitally minutes after the decisions were announced starting with the 1990 session. Each of these tools will help you locate the decisions of the Court with the verbatim wording of the Court’s opinion, along with the facts of the case, the names of the lawyers who argued the case before the Court, other legal decisions that were referred to by the justices in reaching their decisions, and any dissenting or minority opinions.
Courts at the state level also write decisions that affect state legal activities. Decisions of state courts are collected in a series of state reporters, many of which are published by the West Publishing Company. Each state has at least one official high-court reporter; some states have separate reporters for the appellate courts; and a few states have reporters for the trial courts.
Two online database services provide extensive access to all of the types of information we’ve mentioned in this section, and to the hundreds of legal periodicals and law journals that provide commentary on legal decision-making.
Westlaw and LexisNexis are the premiere resources for online access to the actual texts of decisions, regulations, statutes and legal documents. In addition, they provide indexing and in many cases full texts of the articles that are published in journals and magazines by legal scholars, lawyers, law students and commentators about all aspects of law and legal decision making.
A good website for locating legal information is FindLaw, which helps locate the websites of courts at all levels, along with many other legal resources.
Once you understand the relationship between government organizations and the legal research sources that correspond to each area, finding the actual court opinions at any level should be fairly straightforward. However, doing legal research is not for the novice information searcher.
All law libraries have legal reference librarians who can help you locate the actual legal opinions that often serve as the subjects of news, commentary and social furor. Most media organizations have a legal counsel who helps professionals make day-to-day decisions about the legality of certain kinds of messages and activities.
The legal information search tools mentioned here are really for the communicator who has to understand the atmosphere in which certain public-policy decisions are being made and who has to be able to independently locate and interpret information that the public might need to make informed decisions.