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Online Law Primer 101: Untangling Online Legal Resources
Volume 44, Number 2 - March/April 2020

Keep up with pending state legislation

The new year brought not only a new decade but new state laws as well. For instance, in January 2020, Illinois adopted new laws concerning the use of recreational marijua na. These new laws affect not only people wanting to purchase cannabis, but those who want to have their records for prior use expunged. As a result of the new legislation, people may want to know how to start their own recreational marijuana business, understand where they can legally use it in their town, and know their rights in the workplace.

Sample Question

What are the new laws addressing driving with cannabis in a vehicle?

Resource: National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL): 50-State Searchable Bill Tracking Databases 
The status of bills listed in these databases is updated ev ery week. Search by subtopic, year, status (e.g., pending, enacted, to governor, etc.) or enter keywords to identify bills.

Resource: State Legislator Websites provides legislative information from the House and Senate of the United States Congress.

Case Law 
Case law is based on judicial opinions (including decisions that interpret statutes), as opposed to law based on statutes, regulation, or other sources. It also refers to the collection of reported judicial decisions within a particular jurisdiction that deals with a specific issue or topic.

Find state case law without using a subscription service

Searching for case law electronically has become synonymous with the products Lexis Advance and Westlaw. These robust competitors also come with a price tag that is beyond most small library budgets. For patrons who are searching for case law, finding a local entity where they can find access to these could be nearly impossible. Here are some free alternatives.

Sample Question

I am petitioning the court to reconsider my marital settlement agreement and I need to look at case law for my jurisdiction. Where do I find it?

Resource: Google Scholar 
Google Scholar provides access to many state court cases, including those issued at the appellate level and by the state’s highest court.

Resource: Public Library of Law 
This site contains cases from all 50 states back to 1997.

Know how to find court trends

Help your patrons know where to find trending new laws that could affect them in their day-to-day lives.

Sample Question

Are any state courts embracing the use of online dispute resolutions (ODR)?

Resource: National Center for State Courts (NCSC) 
The National Center for State Courts helps you find court forms by state.

Resource: Gavel to Gavel 
This database is a review of state legislation affecting the courts. It is searchable based on state, year, legislation cate gory, or any combination thereof.

Know how to find local laws and ordinances

The law operates on many levels, and frequently you need to find local laws and ordinances. “If you are a city or county resident, a homeowner, a landlord, a tenant, or a small busi ness owner, chances are there is a local law that affects you. When you are researching the laws that apply to your situa tion, check your local ordinances” (

Sample Question

My neighbor’s tree is dropping its leaves on my property. Can I cut back the branches without asking my neighbor?

Resource: Municode Library 
This database will let you search for municipality code. Once you select the U.S. state (plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico), Canadian province (New Brunswick and Nova Scotia are the only ones included), or Tribes and Tribal Nations (six are included) you are searching, there is a breakdown to choose specific municipalities.

Trying to make sense of it all

These online resources have helped me become a better reference librarian, and I hope, by sharing them, you will feel empowered to jump in and guide people in finding stronger, more accurate information about their legal questions. By using these online resources instead of a search engine to help patrons, you are putting their legal questions into con text. Sometimes, I find this to be a helpful move, as many people feel their particular question is a simple one and does not require putting time into researching it or hiring an attorney to answer it.

By taking the time to expand your own knowledge of searching the law more confidently, you can, in turn, impart the tactics needed to locate state and local legal information. By doing so, I hope you and your patrons will find online information concerning the law a little less tangled.

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Ellen Schmid is a reference librarian and the webmaster for the Kane County Law Library & Self Help Legal Center in St. Charles, Ill. She serves as associate editor for the Kane County Bar Association’s magazine, Bar Briefs, and is a library trustee for the Geneva Public Library District.


Comments? Email the editor-in-chief:

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