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Legal Research

Fundamentals of Legal Research

LEGISLATION is PRIMARY law made by the legislative branch.

Where does legislation come from?

Congress (federal) See Introduction to the Legislative Process by the Congressional Research Service.

Legislature (state)

Counties (local)

Municipalities (local "ordinances")

Townships (local)

Any other government body authorized by the constitution or a statute to create laws; e.g., agencies

What is an act?

A bill that is enacted by the legislature and signed by the executive (e.g., governor or president) is an act and becomes the new law of the land. An act goes by many names - law, slip law, session law, etc.

You can find new acts for free on Maine's State Legislature website ( can find new federal acts for free at Congress's website ( You can find bills at the government websites too. And of course they are also available in vendor databases.

Acts are published (i.e., organized) in chronological order, usually called public or session laws. Think about how that might effect your search. What if you don't know when an Act became law?? How will you find it? Is the Act still in effect ("good law")?

A finding tool unique to legislation is the Popular Name Table which is available in official texts, as well as Westlaw Next, Lexis Advance, and Bloomberg Law.

What is a code?

Codification converts Acts into Statutory Codes that are organized by subject.

Codes contain only the law currently in effect, making current law easier to find.

When you want to find the law on a topic in North Carolina you do not look for the original act that was passed by the legislature. You look in the Maine Revised Statutes Annotated (MRSA) which is the codified form of all the Maine acts/laws currently in force.

For federal laws, you look in the United States Code.

It would be very difficult to research statutory law without codified statutes since acts are frequently amended. An act passed in 1950 could have been amended 30 times. 

The codified form of laws are called statutes.

Official v Unofficial Codes

Official codes are published by the government. Sometimes the government hires a commerical publisher to publish the official code.

Maine Revised Statutes Annotated (Annotated Statute & Code Series)The Maine Revised Statutes Annotated published by Thomson West is official, meaning the legislature authorized West to publish the official version (instead of having a state-run print shop).

Source Thomson West web store.


The United States Code 2012 Edition, Volume ThirteenUnited States Code (U.S.C.) published by the U.S. Government Printing Office is official.

Source GPO Bookstore website


There are two unofficial federal codes - The United State Code Annotated (U.S.C.A.) published by West Publishing and the United State Code Service (U.S.C.S.) published by LexisNexis.


Legislative process

The legislative process in Maine is similar to that of most states.  A bill that is passed by both houses of the legislature and signed by the governor becomes a law (aka act or slip law). Bills are usually identified by the part of the legislature where originated; e.g., HB (US) or HP(ME) is a bill from the House of Representatives, SB (or SP) is a Senate bill.


Annotated vs Unannotated Codes

An unannotated code just has the text of the statute so it's not particularly useful for research purposes (except for the purpose of reading the law). An example of an unannotated code is the U.S. Code and the version available on the Maine Legislature's website.

An annotated code means that it has notes ("annotations") after each code section which are used for research. Question: how do statutory annotations differ from headnotes?

Generally each statutory section has the following:

  • Case law annotations (summaries of cases that interpret the statute)

  • Secondary source annotations (secondary sources that discuss the statute)

  • Historical notes (information about the history of the statute)

The Maine Revised Statutes Annotated published by West Publishing is an annotated code in print and online! Lexis Advance's online state code is also an annotated version.

The United State Code Annotated (U.S.C.A.) published by West Publishing (unofficial) and the United State Code Service (U.S.C.S.) published by LexisNexis (unofficial) are both annotated codes in print and online!

An annotated code is one stop research shopping!