This is the first in a series of blog posts based on the Law Student Research Competency Principles as developed by the American Association of Law Libraries.
The first principle is:
“Principle I: A successful researcher should possess fundamental research skills.
- Law students should have an understanding of the complexities of the legal system. They should know the processes and the hierarchical relationships between the three branches of government and the legislation, regulations, and case law they yield.”
Although the above legal research principle only mentions three branches of government, it is slightly more complicated than that.
The three branches referred to are:
- The judicial branch
- The legislative branch
- The executive branch
But there are actually more like 6 branches for any given U.S. state, since these branches exist for both Federal and State Law.
So, now we have the:
1. Federal Judiary– This consists of the federal courts:
2. Federal Legislative Branch – This consists of the U.S. Congress
3. Federal Executive Branch – The law that is produced by this branch, is referred to as administrative law, and is generated largely by federal agencies. It is called administrative law.
At the State Level, for California, the three branches of government are:
4. The California Judicial branch – this refers to the California Courts,
5. The California legislative branch – This includes the California State Assembly and the State Senate
6. The California executive branch – The law that is produced by this branch, is generated largely by the California agencies such as the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). It is called administrative law.
Beyond these six branches of Government, it is important to be aware of two other levels of government that affect you and your potential clients. The county government and the city government.
For San Diego Law students, we are looking at:
San Diego County Government: The County Government generates government documents, many of which are available online at the San Diego County Website.
City of San Diego – Mayor and other City Officials. Government documents produced by the city government officials are in the care of the City Clerk. These documents include City Attorney Legal Documents.
By analogy to state government and the legal documents generated by the state government, what would be called statutes, generated by the California State Assembly, are at the city level, known as Ordinances and are adopted by the City Council.
Similarly, at the state level, administrative law refers to state regulations that are generated by state agencies such as the CPUC. At the city level, it is the city agencies such as the City of San Diego Redevelopment Agency, that produces administrative law in the form of agency resolutions that are adopted by a particular agency.
The judicial branch at the city level is the City Attorney’s Office. The Mayor, the City Council, or any of the City Agencies or City Officials may ask the City Attorney’s Office a legal question either on a specific or more general issue, and the documents generated are analagous to the Case Law produced by State Courts.
It is important for attorneys to understand how government entities are related to each other and to the government information that they produce. Competent legal research goes beyond merely plugging in key words into database search boxes.
One fundamental research skill is the ability to think methodically about which government entity or entities creates the law that covers a particular issue, and to determine where to look to most cost effectively locate the relevant law. Sometimes, it will be freely available on the government website, and sometimes, it will be easy to quickly search the government website for that information.
At other times, it may be more cost effective to use the search tools available on a commercial database such as Westlaw or Lexis, but whether you need to find the right database first as you would with Classic Westlaw or Lexis, or search first and limit your results afterwards to the documents published by the right branch of government, having an awareness of the interrelation of government bodies and government information is essential to conducting legal research in a competent manner.
In general, Federal law preempts state law, State law preempts County codes, and County Codes preempt city codes. A recent example of this in the news lately is that San Francisco is not permitted to consider a local regulation banning circumcision of male babies because it would violate a state law.
The table below provides links to the freely accessible law produced by each of the government entities described in this blog post.
For researching legislative history materials at the federal and state level, there will be separate blog post.