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POLS 425: Legal Research Methods

This research guide for legal research methods will help you find case law, law reviews, and law documents. It also provides information on how to search Nexis Uni.

How to use this guide

Welcome to the Forsyth Library Constitutional Law guide. This guide will introduce you to a variety of resources to enhance your class experience.

If you have any questions about the resources you find here, or need any assistance with research in this class, be sure to Ask a Librarian!

Legal Research Resources

There are two distinct types of legal information. You will need to consult both for your work in this class. When discussing legal resources it is important to know the difference between primary and secondary legal materials.

1. Primary Sources - Primary sources of law are the authoritative publications of law made by legislation and the courts.

Lawyers use primary authority to determine what the law says about a given matter. Identifying and aggregating these materials in order to solve legal problems is what legal research is all about.

Primary sources can be persuasive or mandatory. Mandatory authority is the term used for constitutions, cases, statutes, or regulations the court must follow. A primary material is mandatory when it is binding in a given jurisdiction. For legislative and administrative materials this is often easy to figure out: Illinois statutes are binding in Illinois. Making a determination as to whether a case is mandatory takes a bit more skill. Stated as a simple rule the concept is lower courts are required to follow decisions from higher courts in the same jurisdiction.

Primary Sources can also be persuasive authority. The term persuasive authority refers to any material the court may choose to follow or consider, but which the court does not have to adhere to when making its determination. Thus, primary law from another jurisdiction or a lower court may be used as persuasive authority.

2. Secondary Sources - Secondary sources of law are used to find and explain primary sources of law. Secondary sources include legal encyclopedias, case citators, case digests, text books, specialist commentary services and journal articles. Government documents are also a major source of secondary legal information and include those documents written in the course of making legislation such as second reading speeches, explanatory memoranda and parliamentary reports.

These materials do not have the force of law, but can be very helpful to legal researchers. While these materials are not usually used to support arguments in the way primary materials are, they can be cited for persuasive value. More importantly, these materials can help legal researchers understand the area of law in which they are researching and even connect them to valuable primary sources.