Rensselaer Libraries

STSS 2400 Law, Values, and Public Policy

Posted: Aug 13, 2009

The Federal Legislative Process


Thomas, the official web site for the U.S. Congress, provides access to the Congressional Record, Congressional Record Index, congressional committee reports, congressional directories, committee information, session calendars, public laws, roll call votes, bill status and more. It is the best place to start your research. The Oxford Guide to the United States Government provides definitions and explanations of words and phrases as used in the legislative process.

How Our Laws Are Made, from the Thomas site, provides a good introduction to the legislative process. The House site, The Legislative Process, and the Senate site, Learning about the Legislative Process, both give detailed information on the federal legislative process. In general, both the House and Senate official pages are good sites to use for your research.


Thomas provides the full text of bills starting with the 101st Congress (1989) and summaries of bills starting with the 93rd (1973). Committee reports are available from the 101st Congress onward. Once a bill becomes law, it is incorporated in two official publications. The Statutes at Large are a chronological listing of Acts, both public and private, that have been enacted. The United States Code is the codified collection of laws, grouped by subject. Electronic versions of both of these important resources are available at the Law Library of Congress Guide to United States Law Online site. The Code does not include regulations issued by executive branch agencies, decisions of the Federal courts, or laws enacted by State or local governments. Regulations issued by executive branch agencies are available in the Code of Federal Regulations. Proposed and recently adopted regulations may be found in the Federal Register. For a description of how regulations are made and implemented, use the U.S. Executive Agencies and Regulations site. For information on bills and laws that precede the 93rd Congress (1973-1974), you have several options.

  • The substance (though not the full text) of all enacted legislation is available in the U.S. Code. For instance, a search for information on Title 9 (gender equity in sports programs) returns the text of U.S. Code, Title 20, Education, and then the reference to: "HISTORY: June 23, 1972, P.L. 92-318, Title IX, § 901, 86 Stat. 373" (Public Law 92-318, enacted on June 23, 1972, Title 9, section 901 - also found in the Statutes at Large in Vol. 86, p. 373).
  • Because federal publications are in the public domain, they can be freely distributed. Information about important legislation is available widely on the Web. FirstGov, an official government web site, is a very useful search engine for government information located on commercial and educational, as well as government, websites.

A number of federal agencies prepare information for Congress, for consideration both before a bill is debated and after it has been passed. These include the Congressional Budget Office, the General Accounting Office, the Congressional Research Service [1999 to present], and the former Office of Technology Assessment.

The Federal Judicial Process

To find information on legal cases, use Academic Universe, especially the section on Legal Research. The search interface allows you to choose the category of legal resource you wish to search and also provides information on how to search. Most of your searches will be in the Codes & Regulations Section or in the Case Law Section. For most searches, there is a tab for "More Options" on the search page; try using it to narrow your search or to direct your search to a specific resource, e.g. Supreme Court Cases or Federal Register.

Specific sites with Supreme Court decisions include FLITE, Federal Legal Information Through Electronics, which includes Supreme Court decisions from 1937-1975, and the Supreme Court Collection at the Cornell University Legal Information Institute site, with full information from 1990 to date, and selected cases pre-1990.'s new Supreme Court Center now offers a free beta site with all U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

Boston College Law Library provides an online guide to Reading Legal Citations, in both html and pdf versions to help you understand citations such as

  • Beale v. Sec'y of State, 1997 ME 82, ¶ 7, 693 A.2d 336, 339 [judicial opinion]
  • 15 U.S.C. § 1414 (2000) [statute]
  • Dan T. Coenen, The Constitutional Case Against Intracircuit Nonacquiescance, 75 Minn. L. Rev. 1339, 1341 (1991) [law review]

The Libraries provide access to several online law dictionaries and guides from Oxford University Press that explain legal terminology.

The Secondary Literature

Secondary sources of information that you may want to consider are law reviews, journal articles, and current newspapers. To access these sources, use

State Law

To research New York State law, you may want to start at the NYS Law and Order web site. Or go directly to the NY Legislature site.

For other states, start at State and Local Government on the Net, a frequently updated directory of official state and local government websites. Under its Topic Pages for
All 50 States section, choose Judicial and/or Legislature.

The Legal Information Institute at Cornell Law School also offers a Law by source: State directory.

Foreign and International Law

The Library of Congress Law Library maintains access to GLIN, the Global Legal Information Network, a database of laws, regulations, and other complementary legal sources. The documents included in the database are contributed by the governments of the member nations from the original official texts which are deposited, by agreement of the members. Much of the information is available in both English and the official language of the member nation. The Washburn University School of Law Library maintains foreign and international law web, a web page with links to the web sites of foreign and international legal resources. A similar service for international resources is provided by FindLaw.

Sites worth visiting:

The Legal Information Institute, at the Law Library of Cornell University, with well-organized access to legal information on the state, federal, foreign, and international levels.

Fedlaw "was developed to see if legal resources on the Internet could be a useful and cost-effective research tool for Federal lawyers and other Federal employees. Fedlaw has assembled references of use to people doing Federal legal research and which can be accessed directly through "point and click" hypertext connections."'s Research & Reference section for legal professionals provides links to topic areas as well as legal and judicial sites.

Federal Agency Internet sites, allows users to search an index of agency Internet sites as well as to browse a list of available sites.

RensSearch Finding U.S. Government Information Online site, with links to basic resources from local to international levels.

Abbreviations and Acronyms of the U.S. Government, a list of primarily US government acronyms, for those of you who don't speak bureaucrat-ese.

Citation Styles

Legal information and government documents have very specific style guidelines. For legal citation, refer to Introduction to Basic Legal Citation by Peter W. Martin, "most recently revised in January, 2006 to reflect changes appearing in the eighteenth edition of The Bluebook, published in 2005, and the second edition of the ALWD Citation Manual, published in 2003."

For government publications, other than legal documents, you may want to consult the Brief Guide to Citing Government Information from the Government Publications Department, Regional Depository Library, The University of Memphis.

Library Contact:

If you have any questions about these or other library resources, please contact any member of the Reference Staff.

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