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Representing Yourself: A Legal Resource Guide for Pro Se Litigants: Federal Law Resources

A resource guide to help pro se patrons at the James E. Faust Law Library find and use legal resources to further their personal legal matters.

The Law in the United States

The law of the United States is made up of different levels and forms of law. The most important source of law is the U.S. Constitution and all other law, state or federal, must comport with it. This is what people mean when they ask whether or not a law is constitutional. The sources of U.S. federal law include:

  • The Constitution of the United States
  • Statutes (legislative)
  • Case Law/ Common Law (judiciary)
  • Rules & Regulations (executive)

These sources of law and resources for finding specific laws within them are discussed individually below.

Highlight: Nexis Uni Access

Nexis Uni is a paid legal database. It contains both federal and state law as well as secondary source material. This database does not include everything in LexisAdvance, however it does include the Shepard's citator to update and validate the law you find.

Highlight: Pacer

Pacer is the docket system for the federal district, appellate, and bankruptcy courts. A docket contains a list of all actions that have occurred in a case. Many of the occurrences are supplemented by PDFs of the actual court filings. Looking at court filings can be helpful because you can see what your document should look like and see what arguments have been successful in court before. You can create your own Pacer account; librarians can help you do this. 


Image result for govinfo website

The website is maintained by the federal government and provides free access to many government documents. It is an excellent resource for federal legislative and regulatory information. It has easy to use search functionality and links to original PDFs of documents. Some of the resources included are:

  • CFR (Code of Federal Regulations)
  • Federal Register
  • United States Code
  • United States Court Opinions


Highlight: ProQuest Congressional

ProQuest Congressional is a collection of congressional documents from the early days of the U.S. (1789) to the present. This resource is extremely useful if you are researching the history of a particular law because it includes many documents created during the legislative process (all the work that takes place before a bill actually becomes a law).

***This is a paid database that the public can access for free while in the library. 

Highlight: SCOTUS Blog

A panorama of the United States Supreme Court building.

SCOTUSblog follows cases from the Supreme Court. The website includes Plain English, where legal issues and cases before the Supreme Court are summarized into easy-to-understand terms.


The Constitution of the United States of America

All federal law originates from the Constitution which has granted powers to the various branches of government to enact or enforce specific laws. Laws that are created must be constitutional, meaning they must not conflict with the freedoms outlined in the Constitution. Constitutionality is determined by the judiciary through the courts. Unconstitutional laws will be declared invalid by the court. Below are links to some of the free digital copies of the Constitution: 

The library also maintains an official and annotated copy of the U.S. Constitution in print.

Federal Legislative Materials (statutes)

The legislative branch, or Congress, enacts statutory law. Legislators begin by drafting and proposing bills that they believe answer a specific need or solve a particular problem. Generally there is a lot of research in committees, debate, and redrafting that occurs before the bill comes up for a vote. Many bills never even get voted on. The ones that do get voted on and are passed become law. The final version of the law is called a statute. These statutes are arranged by topic within the U.S. Code. Many statutes are changed or amended over time, so you want to be sure that you are looking at the most current version of a statute unless you know you want a historical version. Below are links to places you can access federal legislative materials including statutes:

  • Congressional Bills
  • Historic versions of the U.S. Code
  • Public Laws (the first place a bill is published in its entirety- the law has not yet been officially codified as statutes)
  • U.S. Code (bills have been split up and codified as statutes by topic)
  • Annotated version of U.S. Code  (includes both code section and annotated additional material- annotations are NOT law)
    • You must be in the library to access this digitally - on Nexis Uni
    • Also available in print in the library

Federal Judicial Materials (case law)

The judiciary determines whether or not laws are constitutional and adjudicate controversies. Their decisions take the form of case law opinions. Case law is also commonly referred to as the common law. There are three levels of the federal court system:

  • U.S. District Courts
    • These courts are the "general trial courts" of the federal system
  • U.S. Court of Appeals
    • Once a case has been decided by the district courts it can potentially be appealed 
  • U.S. Supreme Court
    • The Supreme Court of the Unites States is the highest court in the federal court system 
    • The Supreme Court can decide on appeals from cases brought in federal court
    • The Supreme court can also decide on state court cases that deal with a federal law issue

Below are sources for finding case law:

Federal Administrative Materials (regulations)

Once Congress has passed a bill into law it becomes the responsibility of executive agencies to implement and regulate the law. They do this by creating rules and regulations. They are given power to do this by Congress. Specific agencies oversee specific areas.  Regulations are numerous and you may not even be aware that they apply to you, however this does not mean you cannot be held accountable for violating them. Most agencies, such as the Department of Labor or the Department of Commerce, publish proposed and final rules on their individual websites. The public has a right during the rulemaking process to make comments on rules. Notification of rule proposals and final rule publications are published in the Federal Register. Final rules are then codified in the CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) by department or agency. Below are some links to administrative materials:

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