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Law Day Series – Primary Legal Sources

Posted by Chi Song on June 16, 2015

STACK OF BOOKS

Here are print copies of the Annotated Code of Maryland.

In connection with the Law Library’s celebration of Law Day, we will be publishing a series of eight posts that focus on the basics of the Maryland court system and legal research.

For the Law Library’s legal researchers, the main goal is to find the “law” that will solve his or her legal problem or answer a specific legal question. The legal researchers are looking for relevant primary authorities, which are the binding laws for their case. These primary authorities come from several different sources, and you must read all of the primary sources of law together in reaching your legal conclusion.

Before we start discussing primary legal sources, a research tip is to start with secondary legal resources because these secondary resources have already done a lot of the work for you by reviewing and summarizing the relevant primary legal sources. These secondary legal resources, such as books, articles, formbooks and websites, are often more user-friendly than primary legal sources and can provide summaries of the law, explanations of the law and, most importantly, citations to the relevant primary sources.

Returning to primary legal sources, the main sources of primary law are statutes, regulations, and case law, which this post will briefly describe below.

Statutes. Most people probably think of statutes when they are thinking about the “law”. Statutes are the laws passed by legislatures (for example, the Maryland General Assembly and the United States Congress). Statutes are generally organized by subject in a set called a “code”. For example, you can find the statutes relating to divorce in the Family Law Article of the Maryland Code.

The Law Library’s collection includes The United States Code Annotated, Michie’s Annotated Code of Maryland and West’s Annotated Code of Maryland. You can also access these statutes and statutes from other jurisdictions through our online legal databases.

Regulations. Regulations are perhaps the least well-known of primary legal sources. Regulations are made by executive agencies (for example, the Federal Aviation Agency in the United States Executive Branch and the Maryland Department of Transportation). These agencies derive their rule-making power from statutes passed by the appropriate legislature, granting them those powers. These statutes set forth the subjects and limits of the agency’s rule making powers. So, it is important to read the regulations in conjunction with the relevant authorizing statutes. In Maryland, regulations are printed in the Code of Maryland Administrative Regulations (COMAR). Federal regulations are printed in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).

The Law Library’s collection includes COMAR as well as a subscription to the Maryland Register (the Maryland Register is the supplement service for COMAR that is published every two weeks). In addition, the Law Library’s collection also includes the Code of Federal Regulations and Federal Register. Drop by the Law Library, and we will show you how to use these resources!

Case Law. Case law is the law made by judges (usually at the appellate level). Judges write opinions, which are written explanations that justify a court’s decision and usually includes a statement of facts and the law. Navigating case law is a bit more difficult than navigating statutes and regulations, but equally important because case law can be binding legal authority. Stay tuned because this blog will be posting an article later this month on the topic of case law and opinions.

In the Law Library, you can find case law in print and electronic formats. In print, the cases are published in serials called reporters, which publish the cases in rough chronological order. The Law Library’s collection include Maryland Reports (cases from Maryland Court of Appeals) and Maryland Appellate Reports (cases from the Maryland Court of Special Appeals) as well as certain regional and federal reporters. You can also access the cases online through the Law Library’s subscriptions to online legal databases.

In addition, don’t forget Court Rules, which set out the procedures that you will need to follow. These procedures will vary from court to court and govern things like time limits, service, formats before, during and after a trial.

The Law Library’s collection includes the Annotated Maryland Rules and the Maryland Rules Commentary as well as resources related to the Federal Rules of Procedure.

This post is intended to provided a brief overview only. For additional information, the Maryland People’s Law Library is a great resource for learning more about legal research and how to get started in the Maryland court system. Check out these articles on the Maryland People’s Law Library.

  • Understanding Legal Research – This article provides an overview of primary and secondary authorities. (Español)
  • The Basics of Finding the Law – This article provides an overview of where to find the “law”. Read the article about Understanding Legal Research first.
  • Finding and Using Secondary Sources – Secondary sources, such as articles, encyclopedia, and form books can be very helpful and, for most legal researchers, reading secondary sources is the best place to start. This article provides guidance in locating useful secondary resources.
  • Research Guides – The Maryland People’s Law Library research guides based on subject area (for example, Adoption, Bankruptcy, Divorce, Immigration, Workplace Safety)
  • Evaluating Legal Websites – There is a lot of information available online, but not everything is trustworthy. This article provides some helpful tips to help you decide whether you should rely on what you found on a website. In addition, you can always contact us here at the Law Library.
  • Getting Help from Law Librarians – The Law Library is always happy to assist you with your legal research, but the process can be very complicated, and there are certain things that the librarians cannot do, such as provide legal advice (because we are not attorneys). This article will help you get the most out of your relationship and interactions with the law librarian.

Stay tuned for the next post in our Law Day Series, which will provide an overview of case law research in Maryland.

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