The U.S. Federal Legal System Web-Based Public Accessible Sources

By Gretchen Feltes

Gretchen Feltes, retired, Faculty Services/Reference Librarian at New York University School of Law Library.

1. Introduction

This article was originally prepared to be added with similar works for legal research of many foreign jurisdictions. The intended audience was global in scope and one without access to the printed sources and fee-based databases on American federal law. Since its first publication, I have come to realize that the audience includes many internet users who require reliable legal sources through publicly accessible web-based databases. Many of the materials here are recent and not comprehensive in scope and date coverage. The article is not intended to supplant traditional sources of legal research. It is my hope that it serves as an introduction to the field and leads the user to a more comprehensive exploration of American federal law.

2.1. The Structure of the Federal Government

The legal system in the United States rests on an often-uneasy balance between the national government and the governments of the 50 states. There are parallel systems of executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government and shared powers among the states and the federal governments. The relationship between the state and federal systems can be quite complex. Simply stated, the powers of the federal government are specifically defined in the Constitution. Those powers not expressly prescribed therein are left to the jurisdiction of the 50 sovereign states. Conflicts between state and federal laws are governed by the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution, which declares that all laws enacted in the furtherance of the Constitution are the “supreme law of the land,” and that federal laws have legal superiority over a state constitution or law.

2.2. The Constitution

The Constitution is the founding document for the United States federal government. It is the basic and “supreme law of the land.” It defines the structure of the federal government, provides the legal foundation on which all its actions must rest, and guarantees the rights due to its citizens. No laws may contradict any of the Constitution’s principles. The federal courts have jurisdiction to interpret the Constitution and evaluate the constitutionality of federal and state laws.

The Constitution creates a federal government that is comprised of three separate and equal branches: legislative, executive, and judicial. The legislative branch, Congress, has the authority to make laws. The executive branch, the President and cabinet, has administrative and regulatory power. The judiciary interprets the laws. The government is designed to provide a system of “checks and balances,” in which each branch has oversight powers over the others. For example, the President may veto legislation passed by Congress. For most legal research, the judicial review of legislation is most substantial. Although Congress has the authority to modify prospectively a judgment of the Supreme Court, in practice, the Court is considered to have the “last word” in United States law.

U.S. Constitution (Full Text)

Translations of the United States Constitution may be found at the following

3. Legislation

3.1. Background[1]

Article 1, Section 1 of the Constitution creates a bicameral legislature known as Congress, consisting of the House of Representatives and the Senate. The chief function of Congress is to enact laws. The House and the Senate have equal legislative functions and powers. There is no “upper” or “lower” house in Congress. Legislation must be passed by the majority of each chamber of Congress before it is sent to the President to be signed into law. Among the powers vested in Congress is the power to lay and collect taxes, duties and tariffs and to regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the states.

The Senate has 100 members (two from each state), elected to six-year terms. The House of Representatives has 435 members, who serve two-year terms. Each chamber has standing committees that prepare and draft legislation.

Senate Congressional Biographical Directory
House of Representatives House of Representatives People Search
Congressional Biographical Directory, 1774-
Congressional Directory, 1997-
Senate Historical Office

Background Information Sources Source
How Our Laws Are Made Parliamentarian, United States House of Representatives
Senate Virtual Reference Desk Secretary of the Senate
About Filibusters and Cloture Senate Historical Office
The House Explained
House of Representatives: History, Art Archives Office of the Historian

3.2. Proposed Legislation

Proposed legislation may be initiated in either chamber of Congress in one of four formats: bill, joint resolution, concurrent resolution, or simple resolution. The bill format is most common. There are two kinds of bills: public and private. Public bills affect the public generally; private bills are used to address the matters of individuals. When a bill is introduced, it is numbered by the clerk of the house introducing the legislation. This is the first reading of the bill. It is next referred to one of the standing committees.

The committee may table the bill or continue the drafting process. Hearings may be held on the subject of the bill. The committee may debate and amend the bill before voting on it. If there is a favorable vote, the bill is sent to the floor of the house where the clerk reads it line by line to the house. Members may debate and offer amendments. After a third reading the bill is put to a vote. When a bill is voted upon and passed by one chamber, it is referred to the other house. If the approved bill is reported in the second chamber, there, it may be accepted as is or amended. If amended and passed in the second chamber, the bill is returned to the originating house for a final vote.

Increasingly in recent years, the political polarization of the Senate has led to the widespread use of the rules of filibuster and cloture. The House of Representatives has rules that limit debate of Congressional business. In the Senate, debate is not limited. It can lead to process known as filibuster, where a Senator takes the floor with the intent to block or delay a vote, yielding only to same party Senators. Rule XXII, known as the cloture rule, allows the limiting of consideration of a pending matter to 30 additional hours, but only by a three-fifths vote (60) of the full Senate. A historical chart of cloture votes may be found on the Senate reference website.

Congressional Bill Sources

  • (82nd – 117th Congress (1951-2021))
  • Govinfo (103rd Congress, 1993- GPO: authenticated copy)
  • Bill Summaries (Search in the Words & Phrases Section of form. Coverage begins with 82nd Congress, 1951-)
  • Govinfo Bill Text (Coverage begins with 103rd Congress, 1993- and it is updated daily)

3.3. Enacted Legislation

3.3.1. Presidential Action

Each bill passed by Congress is enrolled for presidential action. A bill becomes law by presidential signature. The Constitution requires the President to approve the bill by signature or to veto it by returning the bill to the house from which it originated with his objections for reconsideration. The objections are read and debated in Congress before a roll call vote is taken. A veto is overridden with a two-thirds vote in each chamber, and the bill becomes law. Finally, a bill may become law by “pocket veto,” whereby the President does not return the bill to Congress with objections within 10 days.

Presidential Veto History Sources

3.3.2. Publication of Enacted Laws

When a law is signed by the President, it is assigned a public law number. The first printing of the public law is known as a “slip law.” The National Archives and Records Administration of the Office of the Federal Register prepares and publishes the enacted legislation. The printed law has a heading that includes the public law number, date of approval, bill number, and title. Statutes at Large enumerations appear in the top-right corner of the page. Annotations citing laws and where the text will be codified in the United States Code appear in the margins.

At the end of each Congressional session, the slip laws are compiled in the United States Statutes at Large, the official chronological publication of the laws and resolutions enacted by Congress. In addition, the text of amendments to the Constitution and presidential proclamations are found in Statutes at Large. The text of a public law remains unchanged from the slip law to Statutes at Large.

US Legislation (full text)

3.4. Codified Law

The Law Revision Counsel of the House of Representatives prepares the official subject compilation of all general and permanent laws, known as the United States Code. There are 51 subject “titles” and five appendices found in the United States Code. New editions are printed and published every six years, with cumulative supplements printed at the end of each regular session of Congress. The current edition of the United States Code is the 2012 edition. Online versions of the United States Code are found on the GPO: Govinfo and the Law Revision Counsel Websites.

Legislation Codified

United States Code House of Representatives Law Revision Counsel 103rd Congress, 1994-
United States Code GPO: Govinfo 1994-
United States Code Cornell Law School, Legal Information Institute Current code (HTML)
United States Code Justia 1994- (HTML)

Searching the US Code

LRC advanced search Search title, section, statutory text, amendments, references

US House of Representatives

Law Revision Counsel

LRC Popular Name Table Law Revision Counsel 1789- (HTML & PDF)
LRC Statutes at Large TableChronological list of laws passed and classified in the US Code Law Revision Counsel 1789- (HTML & PDF)

LRC-US Code Classification Tables

Indicates where recently passed law will appear in the Code

Law Revision Counsel 112th Congress –
US Code Popular Name Table Cornell Law School, Legal Information Institute 1789-
US Code Table of Contents Cornell Law School, Legal Information Institute Current code

3.5. Sources for Legislative Intent

Legal researchers may need to look beyond the enacted language of a statute to find the intent of the lawmakers in drafting the law. Legislative history research may be used as a means of interpreting a statute. The sources for legislative intent follow the history of the passage of the law, from introduction to committee documentation to floor debate and presidential remarks.

3.5.1. Committee Reports and Documents

The work of preparing and drafting legislation is done largely by the standing committees of both the House and Senate. There are 19 House standing committees and 16 in the Senate. Nomenclature differs in the standing committees in the House and Senate. Each bill is referred to the appropriate committee. If a committee votes to report a bill to the larger house, a report is written to analyze and describe the purpose and scope of the proposed law. There is a section-by-section analysis of the bill. It accompanies a bill when it is returned to the introducing chamber for debate and a vote. Reports often include statements of the committee’s rationale for its recommendation for passage of the bill. A committee report is the most important document of legislative intent. A committee report is numbered firstly by Congress, and then sequentially (i.e., 106-1).

If there is a significant difference in the bills passed by the House and Senate, an agreement is negotiated in a conference committee composed of members from both chambers. A conference report is submitted to each chamber for approval. Conference reports appear in the Congressional Record three calendar days before floor consideration.

Congressional Committees,1995- Full text Senate & House reports Search by keyword, bill number, report number and committee TXT and PDF
Congressional Reports 1995- Full text, searchable files GPO: Govinfo Reports in PDF
Congressional Reports including Conference Reports 1995- GPO Reports in PDF
Senate Committees Selective coverage on Committee’s webpages
House of Representatives Committees Selective coverage on Committees’
U.S. Congressional Serial Set Lists of House & Senate Documents, 1954-

3.5.2. Congressional Hearings

Public hearings may be held by the standing and special committees of either the House of Representatives or the Senate. Experts and interested persons and groups may be invited by committees to speak to the need of legislation or air a controversial situation. Committees generally require witnesses to file a written statement of their proposed testimony. Transcripts of public hearings are frequently printed and distributed. Committee hearings schedules are announced in the Congressional Record and the House and Senate webpages. Selected statements and transcripts can be found on the individual committee webpages.

Congressional Hearings
Senate Hearings Daily digest of Committee meetings and hearings
House of Representatives Coverage varies Video format
Congressional Hearings GPO: Govinfo (PDF and ASCII), Coverage, 1957–

3.5.3. Congressional Record

The Congressional Record is published each day the Congress is in session. It is the official record of the debates, proceedings, and activities of Congress. It presents a complete rendition of all bill and amendment texts and of all motions or procedural matters. There are four parts to each issue: separately paged House and Senate reporting, extensions of remarks not made on the floor, and the Daily Digest of congressional activities.

Congressional Record
Congressional Record 1989-
Congressional Record (bound) GPO: Govinfo 1873-2012
Congressional Record (daily edition) GPO: Govinfo 1994-
History of Bills GPO: Govinfo 1983-
Congressional Record Index GPO: Govinfo 1983-
Congressional Globe LC Century of Lawmaking 1833-1873
Congressional Record LC Century of Lawmaking 1873-1877

3.6. Historical Documents

Sources for Additional Historical Information

4. The Judiciary

4.1. The Court System

Article III of the Constitution establishes the federal judicial branch of government. The Supreme Court was organized in 1790 with judicial power to review cases arising under the Constitution, the laws of the United States, and treaties. Statutory authority for the Court can be found in 28 U. S. Code Sect.1251 et seq. The Constitution gives Congress the authority to create additional federal courts. The hierarchical system, which evolved, includes courts of appeal, federal district courts, and lower-level trial courts.

The federal courts have the judicial responsibility to rule on the constitutionality of federal laws and to interpret and apply the laws to resolve disputes. The federal courts have “limited” jurisdiction in that they can only decide certain types of cases as determined by Congress or defined in the Constitution. That means the federal courts decide cases interpreting the Constitution, all federal laws, federal regulations and rules, and controversies between states or between the United States and foreign governments.

Guides to the US Federal Courts System

4.2. Federal Trial and Appellate Courts

The federal district courts are the trial courts, both civil and criminal, in the federal system. There are 94 federal district courts. Each district includes a bankruptcy court. In addition, there are two special trial courts with nationwide jurisdiction over international trade/customs, the Court of International Trade, and the Court of Federal Claims, with jurisdiction over most claims for money damages against the United States, disputes over federal contracts, and unlawful “takings” of private property by the federal government.

A lower court’s ruling on an issue of law may be appealed to the intermediate appellate court. In the federal court systems, these intermediate courts are the United States Courts of Appeal. The 94 federal district courts are organized into 12 regional appellate courts and the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. These courts hear appeals from the district courts and federal administrative agencies. The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, located in Washington, has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals from specialized cases, like patent cases, as well as appeals for the Court of International Trade and Court of Federal Claims.

Federal Court Decisions Sources

  • United States Courts Opinions (GPO Govinfo Opinions from selected US appellate, district, and bankruptcy courts. Coverage varies)
  • (Federal Courts of Appeals cases and searchable database. Search by full text, court, and docket number. Coverage varies by Court)
  • US Courts of Appeals Cases ( (Retrieve cases by Federal Reporter citation, date and circuit. Search full text. Coverage varies, 1949- for appellate cases; district court cases -2011)
  • Google Scholar (Federal district, appellate, tax and bankruptcy decisions from 1923- ; US Supreme Court coverage, 1791-)

Federal Court Rules

Bibliographical Information

4.3. Supreme Court

The United States Supreme Court is the court of final appeal. The Court is comprised of the Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices, nominated by the President and confirmed by Congress. Cases heard by the Supreme Court usually involve questions about the Constitution or federal law. Cases may begin in the federal or state courts. The court has discretionary power to decline review of cases from lower courts by denying petitions of certiorari or dismissing appeals.

Background Information on the Supreme Court

Biographical Information of the Justices

Supreme Court Confirmation Hearings

Supreme Court sessions begin on the first Monday of October and officially end on the first Monday of October the following year. Traditionally, however, the Court issues decisions through June. According to the Supreme Court website, nearly 10,000 petitions are filed with the Court over the course of a Term. The business of the Court is divided between “sittings” (for oral arguments of cases and reading the Court’s decision) and “recesses” (for writing decisions, including concurring and dissenting opinions). The Court, according to the Supreme Court website, issues 80 to 90 decisions per year on average. These decisions are published officially in the United States Reports.

Parties petitioning the Court for a hearing in a case are required to submit briefs outlining the factual background legal arguments in support of the petition. Briefs are filed weeks in advance of oral arguments. Petitioners and Respondents each file briefs and may reply in additional briefs. In addition, a person or organization, who is not a party in the case, may file a “friend of the court” or amicus curiae brief to argue for or against a hearing of a case or the merits of the case.

US Supreme Court Briefs
US Dept. of Justice, Office of the Solicitor General 1985- Searchable by topic of law
Petitions We’re Watching (ScotusBlog) Current term

When a case has been granted a hearing by the Court, oral arguments are scheduled. Lawyers for each party are given 30 minutes to present its case. Justices may interrupt with questions or remarks.

Supreme Court Oral Argument Sources

  • Supreme Court Arguments Transcripts: Available from the Court’s website, October 1989 term –
  • Oyez (Chicago-Kent Law School): Recordings of the selective oral arguments from October 1955-1967, complete 1968-
  • SCOTUS Blog: Transcripts available for each listed case organized by term, October 2007-

After oral arguments, the case goes to conference for discussion by the Justices. Cases are decided by a majority of the Justices of the Court. The task of writing the opinion is assigned by the Chief Justice, when he has voted with the majority, or by the senior Justice of the majority.

United States Supreme Court Cases Sources

  • United States Supreme Court includes docket information from the 2001 term, calendars, et cetera. The Court has bound volumes of United States Reports in PDF format beginning with volume 502, October 1991 term.
  • Cornell Legal Information Institute Supreme Court Collection: All opinions 1990-. Searchable by topic, opinion author, party names, date.
  • US Supreme Court Opinions: All opinions, 1893-. Searchable by citation, party name, and full text Maintains an Opinions Summaries Archive, September 2000-.
  • Google Scholar: All opinions, 1789-. Full text searching.
  • Oyez: Chicago-Kent Law School Multimedia database, includes audio files of oral arguments, selected decisions back to 1789. Arranged in reverse chronological order. Alternative arrangement by issue.
  • SCOTUS blog: Tracks cases from certiorari stage through the merits stage. Live blogging of opinions

United States Supreme Court Rules

4.4. Courts of Special Jurisdiction

In addition to the courts described above, there are federal courts with jurisdiction over specialized areas of law including bankruptcy, tax, federal claims, international trade, and military appeals. Each of the 94 federal districts has a bankruptcy court. The US Tax Court handles appeals from the Commissioner of the Internal Revenue. The US Court of Federal Claims and the US Court of International Trade have nationwide jurisdiction. The Court of International Trade has jurisdiction over civil actions arising out of import transactions and federal statutes affecting international trade. The Court of Federal Claims hears cases involving money claims with the United States. The Court of Military Appeals is independent of the Department of Defense and is composed of five civilian judges who act as the final appellate tribunal in military law.

Guides to Courts of Special Jurisdiction Decisions
United States Bankruptcy Courts FindLaw’s Bankruptcy Courts page links to the local courts, coverage varies by court
United States Court of Federal Claims Decisions
United States Court of International Trade Decisions, 1999-
United States Court of Military Appeals Decisions, 1997-
United States Tax Court Decisions

5. Executive Branch and Administrative Law

5.1. Background

The executive branch of the federal government includes the President, the Vice President, the Cabinet, and the federal agencies. Among the presidential powers are the power to nominate the federal judiciary, ambassadors, and all other officers of the United States. He has primary authority for foreign affairs. The President has legislative oversight powers by power of veto.

The President selects the Cabinet and the heads of governmental agencies, subject to approval by Congress. The Cabinet is the highest advisory group to the President. The 14 Cabinet departments are State, Treasury, Defense, Justice, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Energy, Education, and Veterans Affairs. In addition, there are governmental agencies that serve specific needs. They include the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Labor Relations Board, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The United States Government Manual is the directory of the administrative agencies of the federal government, as well as quasi-official agencies, and international organizations in which the US participates. Outlines statutory authority, jurisdiction, and major publications of the agencies and a directory of personnel.

Sources for the Executive Branch

5.2. Administrative Law Sources

Congress has the authority to write laws but gives authority to interpret, administer, and promulgate rules and regulations for those laws to the federal agencies. The government agencies issue rules and regulations that have the force of law and preempt state laws and rules. A general statement describing the rule’s purpose and authority usually accompanies the final rule. Technically, the administrative law is subordinate to legislation. In addition, the President has broad powers to issue executive orders to direct the actions of agencies or government officials or to set policies for the executive branch to follow.

Guides to Federal Administrative Law

5.2.1. Federal Register

The publication of federal rules and regulations loosely parallels the publication of laws, in that they are published firstly, chronologically in the Federal Register, and in subject arrangement in the Code of Federal Regulations. Rules and regulations go through a process of notice and comment before they are final. The notice describes the proposed rule and allows the public at least 30 days to comment. After this process, the agency can issue a final rule. A general statement describing the rule’s purpose and authority usually accompanies the final rule.

The Federal Register is published each business day. Material is arranged under one of five headings:

  • Presidential Documents (proclamations, executive orders, other executive documents)
  • Rules and regulations (with force of law), including CFR references, agency, summary of actions, effective dates, and text of the regulation and change. Rules are published 30 days prior to effective dates. Comments received and subsequent actions are summarized.
  • Proposed rules and regulatory agendas, hearings notices
  • Notices of matters not concerned with rulemaking agency decisions and rulings, impact statements, et cetera
  • Notices of Sunshine Act meetings

Each issue of the Federal Register contains a table of contents arranged by agency name and any rules, proposed rules, and notices of the agency, followed by a table of changes in regulations (List of Sections Affected) arranged by Code of Federal Regulations citation. The last issue of the month contains a cumulative list of sections affected.

The federal government maintains an interactive website for public participation in the regulatory process. allows a search to find, view and comment on proposed regulations and rules.

Federal Register

5.2.2. Code of Federal Regulations

The Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) is a codification of the general and permanent rules published in the Federal Register by the federal agencies. Regulations are codified in a subject arrangement of 50 titles similar to the United States Code. The 50 titles represent broad areas subject to federal regulation. Each title is divided into chapters and parts. The chapters usually bear the name of the issuing agency. The entire code is revised on an annual basis. In addition, the federal agencies have adjudicatory power in determining cases and questions arising over regulations. Federal agency websites publish guides to the Code of Federal Regulation, updates, proposed rules, and some decisions of the administrative courts.

Code of Federal Regulations

5.2.3. Administrative Rulings and Decisions

Most federal agencies have a quasi-judicial power in determining cases and in ruling about questions arising from their regulations. This adjudicatory power involves settling disputes between or among parties or between parties and the government. For example, a dispute may arise when an agency has made a binding and case-specific ruling about the site of a federal facility. The property owner may appeal the decision to an administrative law judge. There is fact-finding process, known as a hearing, and a ruling based upon the agency regulations. Hearings are conducted by an administrative law judge who issues the initial decision. Decisions may be appealed to a higher authority in the agency, then through the federal courts. Most federal agencies write formal opinions. Decisions and rulings are found on the websites of the federal agencies. Examples follow in the table below.

Decisions and Rulings

5.3. Presidential Documents

5.3.1. Executive Orders and Proclamations

As discussed above, the President can issue Executive orders to direct the actions of the federal agencies or to set policies for the executive branch to follow. They are official documents, numbered consecutively. Executive orders are printed in the Federal Register. Executive Orders Resources include:

5.3.2. Presidential Documents

The Compilation of Presidential Documents is published by the Office of the Federal Register, The National Archives and Records Administration. The online collection available on the GPO website combines the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents (1993-2009) and the Daily Compilation of Presidential Documents, 2009-. Statements, nominations, messages, speeches, press conferences and other Presidential materials released by the White House are found here. Searchable files go back to 1993. The Compilation is cumulated annually in the Public Papers of the President.

Presidential Papers and Documents
Compilation of Presidential Documents, 1993- GPO: Govinfo
Public Papers of the Presidents, George H. W. Bush through Obama GPO: Govinfo
Miller Center (Univ of Virginia) American President Reference Resource – essays, oral histories, speeches
American Presidency Project: Searchable official papers from 1929-; messages and papers from 1789-1913; Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, 1977-2009; Daily Compilation of Presidential Documents, 2009-

John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters at the University of California,

Santa Barbara.

American Presidency Project: Presidential Signing Statements John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Comprehensive Federal Law Websites (statutes, cases, regulatory sources)

Search Engines

  • Google Scholar: Search and retrieve state and federal case law, some government documents
  • Service of the Catalog of US Government Publications, searches multiple U.S. Federal government databases, retrieving reports, articles, and citations while providing direct links to selected resources available online
  • US government’s office web portal to government information and services

Guides to United States Legal Research in Other Languages

[1] Guides to researching the legislative history and intent of federal lawmaking are available on the Law Librarians’ Society of Washington, DC. Federal Legislative History Sourcebook webpage. It is second to none. The Congressional Research Service has two reports on compiling legislative histories: Legislative History Research: A Basic Guide by Julia Taylor (2013) and Researching Current Federal Legislation and Regulations by Jerry W. Mansfield (2017).