Primary sources are potentially binding legal norms. Legal scholars have also identified them as the official pronouncement of the governmental lawmakers. If violated, the government can enforce them. Primary sources represent the tangible aspect of American law. They are the main object of your legal research, and are the product of the three branches of the federal and local government.

Statutes are the primary source of law that comes from the legislative branch, otherwise known as statutory law. Statutes are compiled in various statutory compliations, which can be accessed in different ways according to the information needed. Case law is the primary source of law that comes from the judicial branch, otherwise known as decisional law. Case law can be found in the various compilations of court opinions. Administrative law is the primary source of law that comes from the executive branch. Administrative law can be found in the compilations of presidential executive orders, administrative rules and regulations, and administrative decisions. Most compilations of primary sources are publicly available, whether electronically or in print. Many are freely accesible, but some are only available for a fee.

However, before you dive into a specific repository, think about a “plan of action.” A proper plan of action should bring you from the initial selection of sources all the way through to the search itself.


Plan of Action

What primary sources do I need to access?
(i.e., statutes, cases, administrative regulations)

What do I need from those sources?
(i.e., a statute as passed by Congress on a specific date, or the
statute in its most current incarnation [with amendments])

Why do I need that specific primary source?


As shown earlier, the overall research plan will help you figure out whether you should search for a primary source, or whether you need to start with a secondary source -- a commentary about the primary rule -- which will give you a better understanding of what you're searching for in the first place.