Tag Archives: legal information literacy

Understand the Legal System, Find the Law

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.” http://researchcompetency.wordpress.com/2011/02/28/26/

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.

Law Online

Jurisdiction Judicial branch Legislative branch Executive branch
Opinions Rules
Library of Congress Research Help On Finding Federal Court DecisionsFind State Court Decisions Federal Court Rules – Compiled by Cornell Legal Information Institute Find Federal Statutes Find Federal Administrative Law
Highest Court
U.S. Supreme Court Opinions U.S. Supreme Court, Court Rules U.S. Code Electronic Code of Federal Regulations (not official)
Appellate Courts
United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, Opinions and Orders United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, Rules of PracticeFederal rules of practice, procedure and evidence
Appellate Courts with jurisdiction over CA
Federal 9th Circuit Courts
Published Opinions (Posted 01/03/05 +)Published Opinions (Posted prior to 01/09/2009)Unpublished Opinions (11/10/2009 +)Unpublished Opinions (12/08/2008 – 11/10/2009)

Unpublished Opinions (Prior to 12/08/2008)

Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure (FRAP), Ninth Circuit Rules
Federal Trial Courts Opinions are not generally available online for free California Southern District (Federal Trial Court for San Diego), Local Court Rules
California – Highest court and appellate courts CA Supreme Court and Court of Appeals Opinions CA Rules of Court CA Statutes (Browse or Search) CA Code of Regulations (Browse or Search)
California – Trial Court (San Diego) Opinions are not generally available online for free San Diego County Superior Court Rules
San Diego County San Diego County Counsel Other San Diego County Government Documents (Not an exact analogous mapping onto Court Rules) County Ordinances Code of Administrative Ordinances & Code of Regulatory Ordinances
San Diego City City Attorney Legal OpinionsCity Attorney Memorandum of Law City Attorney Legal Documents (Not an exact analogous mapping onto Court Rules) City of San Diego Municipal CodeCity Council Resolutions and Ordinances Agency Resolutions and Ordinances

Your Westlaw/Lexis student account is for Academic Use Only

  • Use your school Westlaw or Lexis IDs only for school research.
    • The one exception  at TJSL is:
      1. If you are a research assistant for a professor at TJSL, you may use your school Westlaw/Lexis ID to perform academic research for that professor.
  • Use law firm resources to do research for a law firm.
    • It is illegal and a violation of professional ethics to use your Westlaw/Lexis school ID to do law firm research.

Law Students need to be aware of the restrictions on the use of Westlaw and Lexis student accounts.

The agreement that TJSL students have with Westlaw regarding use of their accounts is provided here for your convenience. In short, it says that:

  • you may not use your Westlaw account to do research for a law firm you are interning/externing with for the summer.
  • you may only use your Westlaw account to do research for a class that you are enrolled in at TJSL.

The Lexis agreement says almost the same thing, and is available for you to read on the Lexis Website under Terms. In plain English their policy regarding law student use of Lexis is available at the Lexis Website, under Company Information.

Unlike Westlaw, Lexis has two specific exceptions to the rule that students may not use their accounts to do research for law firms. If the student is doing:

  1. a for credit internship/externship, the student may use their academic Lexis ID to do research for the law firm.
  2. an unpaid internships  for a pro bono or non-profit law firm, the student may use their student Lexis accounts to do research even if their internship/externship  is not for credit.

Westlaw and Lexis are aware that not all law firms have access to their databases. As such, they monitor student accounts during the Summertime. They are looking for unusual patterns of search, such as:

  • Searching for items that are more commonly looked for by practicing attorneys than by law students.
  • Searching from a law firm’s IP address.
  • Warehousing material, that is, downloading and saving many items.

If students are found exhibiting these types of behaviors which give the appearance of misconduct, they will be investigated and charges may be brought against them. In addition, the California State Bar Association will be informed of the student’s violation of their user agreement and this may be grounds for refusal of admission to the California State Bar for unethical, illegal behavior.

To avoid being accused of misconduct and potentially ruining your career before it begins:

  • Only use your school account to do research for your classes
  • For law firm research use firm accounts, or if they do not have access, then use:
    • print resources from the nearest law library
    • Google scholar to search for patents, legal opinions and journals
  • Do not do school research from the law firm office

If your law firm pressures you to use your school account, even after you have informed them of the terms of your agreement with the database vendors, I recommend that you inform career services at TJSL of your situation.

Be informed! Know the limitations on the use of your student Westlaw and Lexis accounts.