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Internet Research for Paralegals

This guide represents a summary of the points accompanying the teleconference lecture conducted in January, 2012

Basic Organization

The most basic form of organization for primary legal documents on the web is by jurisdiction.  Virtually every federal governmental entity has a web presence.  Every state has a web site.  Every major municipality has a web site, as do a large number of small communities.  The web is no longer exotic territory even to small governmental units.  The variety of materials—cases, laws, administrative documents, etc.—depends on the creativity of the entity.  The trend is to place at least heavily requested documents online.  The advantage to governments is that it cuts down on the amount of printed copies while still widely disseminating information to the public.  An experienced researcher develops the knowledge of what types of documents will likely be available. 

Statutes, Codes, and Municipal ordinances

The official United States Code is available in compilations starting in 1994 to the present at FDsys, the replacement for GPO Access.  Another copy of the current code which can be downloaded by title, chapter or section is located at the web site for the Office of the Law Revision Counsel.  This office is part of the House of Representatives and is charged with editing the official text of the code for publication.  Federal executive documents are available through links in GPO Access, the White House web site, and individual federal agency web sites.  PDF versions of the Federal Register and the Code of Federal Regulations starting with editions published in the mid 90’s are also at FDsys.

 GPO Access had been the main site for federal government documents.  FDsys is designed to be more consumer friendly with more options to search and browse government documents.  Court opinions, for example, were never available at GPO Access but are available on FDsys.gov.  Access through this site for opinions may make the need for a PACER subscription unnecessary.  This is, however, a new feature and only features a small number of the federal courts as of now. 

 Another feature of the site is the authentication of documents presented there that identifies them as in the form issued by the Superintendent of Documents.  PDF documents from the site contain an unalterable header that vouches for the document content and presumably changes or disappears if the document is altered.  Once the transition is complete, GPO Access will become purely an archival site or phased out entirely. 

 All states have placed their statutory and administrative codes online in one form or another.  This information is usually available via links from the state legislature web site and/or the state agency’s web site.  Agency decisions are sometimes available, usually from the agency’s web site.  Another source for state information is Stateinformation.com. Federal agency decisions are collected by the University of Virginia.

 There are several substantial sources for municipal ordinances.  The first is the municipality’s own site.  Many municipalities do not publish codes online though they may be available at no charge through the two major commercial code sites,   Municode.com and Sterling Codifiers.  Municode.com covers most all states (but not all municipalities within those states).  Sterling Codifiers cover states from the upper Midwest and all states west of the Mississippi River.  Lexis also publishes municipal codes, though these are accessible via links from a municipal web site rather than an aggregated site.  About 500 codes previously published by Lexis have been acquired by Municode.com in the last two years.