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WHAT IS LEGAL RESEARCH?
Legal research aims to find “authorities” that aid in reaching a solution to a legal problem.1See Legal Information Institute, Legal Research, https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/legal_research (last visited Feb. 5, 2023)
In other words, legal research is the process of finding and retrieving information relevant to a legal problem or question. It involves using various resources, such as statutes, case law, legal treatises, and online databases, to gather information and understand the legal principles and precedents that apply to a specific issue.
Legal research aims to identify the relevant laws and precedents, analyze their impact on the issue at hand, and use that information to support a legal argument or decision. As such, it is an important tool for lawyers, judges, paralegals, and others in the legal profession, as it helps ensure that they thoroughly understand the law.
Certified paralegals and attorneys are required to know how to conduct legal research, as it can be complicated to find, look through, and analyze the abundant results from legal research. Certified paralegals and attorneys have to know when the law they have found is relevant to use in a case.
WHAT IS A STATUTE?
A “statute” is a law enacted by a legislature.2See Wex Definitions Team, Statute, https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/statute (last updated May 2020) A statute is commonly referred to as a “law” and also as a “code.” There are state laws and federal laws. There are also municipal codes such as ordinances, bylaws, and measures that local municipalities or towns put into place to govern the town.
The “United States Statutes at Large” is the permanent collection of all laws and resolutions enacted during each session of Congress.3See U.S. Government Publishing Office, Statutes at Large, 1951 (Vol. 65, 82nd Congress) to 2013, https://www.govinfo.gov/help/statute (last updated June 14, 2022)
Cited statutes can be extremely confusing if one has not been trained to read a statute; however, there is a very straightforward method to unpacking statutes and their citations.
For instance, Utah Code §41-6a-601 (“Speed regulations – Safe and appropriate speeds at certain locations – Prima Facie speed limits—Emergency power of governor”) can be broken down as follows:
Utah Code–This is the legislation responsible for this law; essentially, this means Utah Legislation Law.
§—A symbol meaning “section”
41—The title number
6a—The chapter number
601—The section of the statute
“Speed regulations – Safe and appropriate speeds at certain locations – Prima Facie speed limits – Emergency power of governor”—The plain language title of the statute.
Thus, we can say that speeding regulations can be found in section 601 of chapter 6a of title 41 of the Utah Code under a heading entitled “Speed regulations – Safe and appropriate speeds at certain locations – Prima Facie speed limits – Emergency power of governor.”
While it can be intimidating to look at when breaking down a citation, as shown above, it is easy to see that each part means something and can be broken up to find what one is researching.
WHAT IS CASE LAW?
Case law is the law that is based on judicial decisions rather than law based on constitutions, statutes, or regulations.4See Wex Definitions Team, Caselaw, https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/case_law (last updated May 2020)
Case law refers to the collection of reported judicial decisions of cases and the principles of law established in those cases. Case law is the body of law created by the written opinions of the courts, especially appellate courts (such as the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court, whether at the state or federal level), that interpret and apply the law to specific cases.
Case law helps to establish legal precedent and guides future cases with similar facts.
The law of legal precedent is also known as stare decisis, a Latin term meaning “to stand by things decided.” 5See Wex Definitions Team, Stare Decisis, https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/stare_decisis (last updated Dec. 2021) It refers to the principle in common law (comprised of civil law and criminal law) legal systems that courts are obligated to follow the precedent established by prior cases.
Stare decisis means that when a court hears a case that is similar to a case that has been previously decided, the court should follow the reasoning and decision of the earlier case. The stare decisis principle helps promote stability, predictability, and consistency in the law, and it is a key aspect of the common law legal system.
Explained differently, “precedent” refers to a court decision, usually made by the Court of Appeals of the Supreme Court, that is considered as authority for deciding subsequent cases involving identical or similar facts or similar legal issues.6See Wex Definitions Team, Precedent, https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/precedent (last updated May 2020)
A prior decision serves as precedent only for the issues that the court explicitly considered in reaching its decision.7See id.
If the court has already made a decision, it is unlikely that the court will retract it unless new evidence that would reasonably compel a change comes to light. This is one way that case law can make or break a case.
Showing the court that a higher court has already decided the issue being raised in the case can help or hurt a case.
Supreme Court Precedent
Any decision rendered by the Supreme Court of the United States of America is binding on all federal courts and state courts regarding issues of the Constitution and federal law. Each state also has its own supreme court, and the decisions made therein impact the issues for the state the court applies to.
Many important decisions have been made in the United States by the Supreme Court. Some notable Supreme Court decisions include:8See American Bar Association, Landmark United States Supreme Court Cases, https://www.americanbar.org/groups/public_education/programs/constitution_day/landmark-cases/ (last visited Feb. 5, 2023)
Brown v. Board of Education (1954)
The decision in Brown overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine. The argument was that segregated public schools violated the Equal Protection Clause. This case helped establish the basis for the civil rights movement and integration across the country.
Gideon v. Wainwright (1963)
The decision in Gideon held that the Sixth Amendment right to assistance of counsel applies to criminal state trials. It stated, “Lawyers in criminal court are necessities, not luxuries.” This decision expanded the public defender systems across the United States.
Miranda v. Arizona (1966)
In Miranda, the Court found that the Fifth and Sixth Amendments require police to inform individuals in custody that they have the right to remain silent and to be assisted by an attorney. The term “Miranda Rights” is now common knowledge across the United States, and it keeps people informed of their rights when they are in custody.
Dobbs v. Jackson (2021)9See Supreme Court of the United States, Syllabus – Dobbs v. Jackson (Oct. 2021), https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/21pdf/19-1392_6j37.pdf
In Dobbs, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.10410 U.S. 113 (1973). In Dobbs, the Court determined that the Constitution does not protect the right to an abortion. This decision has led to much debate across the United States.
As exhibited by the above-referenced cases, case law is an important part of the legal system that can make or break a case.
WHERE TO FIND STATUTES AND CASE LAW
Attorneys and paralegals use different websites and legal platforms that help them research statutes and caselaw easily. Westlaw, Fastcase, Casetext, and LexisNexis are some of the more popular legal research websites. It is important to note that these websites cost money to use. They are membership based.
Using the websites stated above, an attorney and paralegals can research and find virtually all statutes and case law related to the case they are working on. An attorney or paralegal can also specify which jurisdiction, such as state or federal, they are looking for caselaw or statutes in. This helps narrow down the search. If one does not have a membership to a legal research website, one can use a search engine to find cases and statutes that are relevant to one’s case.
For example, if one received a speeding citation in Utah and wanted to see what the law in Utah was regarding speeding, in such a circumstance, one could search “speeding laws in Utah.” This search would likely give one a good start in finding out the law in Utah regarding speeding. Another example would be if a grandparent wanted to find information regarding grandparent rights in Utah, they could search “grandparent rights in Utah.”
Not every case that one finds will be relevant to one’s case. It is important to read the case information thoroughly and to understand what the decision was in the case.
For instance, did the court agree with the original decision, or did they reverse it to be retried? When reading about a case, another case may be cited that could be relevant and could be used in the case at hand. When performing legal research, it is always important for one to research all aspects that might be relevant to one’s case.
Since attorneys and paralegals have been trained in legal research, they tend to have an easier time finding case law and statutes that are relevant to cases.
Needing to conduct legal research is a great reason to hire a paralegal.
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