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Legal Research for UNT Students: Understanding the U.S. Legal System

Resources for students new to legal research

Separation of Powers

U.S. Constitution

The Constitution established America's government and fundamental laws, and is the supreme law of the United States. The Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution to ensure a separation of powers, or three distinct branches of government. 

Full-text versions can be found on the following sites:

Constitution of the United States: Analysis and Interpretation, Government Publishing Office

Constitution of the United States, National Archives online

Legislative Branch

The Legislative Branch, established by Article I of the Constitution, consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate, which together form the United States Congress. The Constitution grants Congress the sole authority to enact legislation and declare war, the right to confirm or reject many Presidential appointments, and substantial investigative powers.

Types of Legislative Documents (most definitions taken from the Congress.gov glossary): 

  • Measures
    • BillThe primary form of legislative measure used to propose law. Depending on the chamber of origin, bills begin with a designation of either H.R. or S.
    • Joint Resolution:A form of legislative measure used to propose changes in law, or to propose an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Depending on the chamber of origin, they begin with a designation of either H.J.Res. or S.J.Res.
    • Simple Resolution or ResolutionA form of legislative measure introduced and potentially acted upon by only one congressional chamber and used for the regulation of business only within the chamber of origin. Depending on the chamber of origin, they begin with a designation of either H.Res. or S.Res.
    • Concurrent ResolutionA form of legislative measure used for the regulation of business within both chambers of Congress, not for proposing changes in law. Depending on the chamber of origin, they begin with a designation of either H.Con.Res. or S.Con.Res.
  • Hearing: A formal meeting of a congressional committee (or subcommittee) to gather information from witnesses for use in its activities (that is, the development of legislation, oversight of executive agencies, investigations into matters of public policy, or Senate consideration of presidential nominations).
  • Committee Print: Miscellany and ephemera of legislative documents
  • Committee ReportDocument accompanying a measure reported from a committee. It contains an explanation of the provisions of the measure, arguments for its approval, votes held in markup, individual committee members’ opinions, cost estimates, and other information.
  • Floor Debate: Published in the Congressional Record, floor debate is the near verbatim record of consideration within each chamber of Congress
  • Conference ReportThe document presenting an agreement reached by a joint temporary committee (a conference committee) appointed to negotiate a compromise between the House and Senate.
  • Public Laws: Introduced measures that make it through the legislative process to become law.

To learn how to search for federal laws enacted by Congress, click on this link:

            Finding Federal Statutes and Codes

Access information about the daily business of Congress including proposed bills, hearings, floor votes and more by clicking this link:

Congress.gov

Executive Branch

The Executive Branch consists of the President of the United States, the Vice President, the Cabinet, and independent federal agencies. The Cabinet and independent federal agencies are responsible for the day-to-day enforcement and administration of federal laws.

To learn how to search for administrative law, including agency rules and regulations, click on this link:

Finding Agency Rules and Regulations

Judicial Branch

The judicial branch decides the constitutionality of federal laws and resolves other disputes about federal laws. The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the land.  At the middle  rung of the Federal court system there are the court of appeals, and at the lowest level there are Federal district courts, which handle the majority cases of Federal law. 

Court Role and Structure

Finding Case Law 

Additional Links

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