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Legal Research Guide: Home

Political Science Research Guide

Legal Research Guide



This guide provides an overview of legal resources available in the VVC library, primarily focusing on California legal research. Depending on the type of information needed - locating a case, identifying a code, answering a legal question - the guide lists relevant sources, both print and electronic, for each section. Remember that currency is a key component in legal research. Be sure to check the "pocket part" supplements for the most current revisions, cases and laws. Supplements can be separate, or inserted in the back of each volume.

Getting Started

court California Court System

The vast majority of cases in the California courts begins in one of the 58 Superior or Trial courts — located in each of the state's 58 counties. With more than 450 locations, these courts hear both civil and criminal cases, as well as family, probate, and juvenile cases. These courts are often the sites of the "media circus" cases (O.J. Simpson, Casey Anthony, Dr. Conrad Murray, etc.). It is important to note that the decisions of these courts are not published in the legal case reporters.

The next level of judicial authority within the state's judicial branch resides with the Courts of Appeal. Most of the cases that come before the Courts of Appeal involve the review of a superior court decision that is being contested by a party to the case. The state is divided geographically into six appellate districts, each containing a Courts of Appeal.

The California Supreme Court serves as the highest court in the state, and has discretion to review decisions of the Court of Appeal in order to settle important questions of law and to resolve conflicts among the Courts of Appeal. The court also must review the appeal in any case in which a trial court has imposed a judgment of death.

For further information on the California State Court System, see the California Courts website.

Finding Books

 Basic Legal Research

It is often helpful to start with a secondary source such as a legal encyclopedia or "treatise" before researching primary authority sources (statutes and cases.) Secondary sources summarize and interpret the law in a narrative format and contain footnotes with case and statute citations on specific points of law. The following are recommended secondary sources found in the VVC library:

  • California Jurisprudence 3d (Cal Jur 3d)
    (Ref. KFC 80 .C25)
    Cal Jur 3d is a legal encyclopedia published by the West Group. There are over 70 volumes in the set, arranged alphabetically by legal topic. Each topic contains relevant references to California codes, regulations, case reporters, the West California Digest key number, and Witkin. Separate volumes at the end of the set include a subject index, a table of cases, and a table of statutes.

    [Tip: Refer to the outline at the beginning of each chapter listing the structure of legal topics, subsections, and classification of the material covered.]

  • Summary of California Law (Witkin, 10th ed.)
    (Ref. KFC 80 .W5)
    A multi-volume set that presents expert analysis and an extensive, integrated treatment of all major California substantive law topics: Workers' Compensation, Parent and Child, Husband and Wife, Personal Property, Torts, etc. Relevant references to California codes, regulations, case reporters, and the West's California Digest key number system are provided for each topic. A separate index volume is also available.

    [Tip: Refer to the outline at the beginning of each chapter showing the structure of legal topic and subsections identifying and classifying aspects of the material covered.]

  • West's California Digest 2d (West)
    (Ref. KFC 57 .W53)
    A "digest" contains citations and headnotes taken from cases and categorized by a legal topic. West's California Digest 2d includes cases from West's California Reporter published since 1950. The research value of West's digest lies in the combination of headnotes--a sentence-long summary of a legal issue discussed in a case--and the West's key number system. The key number system classifies the law into topics and subtopics that are arranged alphabetically in the digest:


In the example above, Key number 204 refers to "Child's preference" within the topic of Child Custody. Cases on this point are located in the digest under "Child Custody" followed by the key number. Digests are often useful for locating on-point cases based on key numbers referenced in secondary sources.

[Tip: Refer to the outline at the beginning of each chapter showing the structure of legal topics and the key number classification.]

Finding Articles

 Finding Case Law

When judges and courts decide cases, written opinions are published in case reporters explaining the reasoning in reaching their decisions. As noted above under “California Court System,” only the opinions of the Court of Appeals and the California Supreme Court are published; Superior Court decisions are not published. These judicial opinions are an important source of legal authority and are used by other courts to decide cases on the basis of principles and rules established in earlier decisions (called precedents). When court opinions are referenced in a legal treatise (a reference book covering a specific area of law) and other secondary sources, the citations are usually in the form of a "parallel citation," citing both the state "official" reporter and subsequent "unofficial" reporters. The text of the opinion is the same in all sources, whether "official" or "unofficial." Example:

Finding Cases by Citation or Party Name

1. Print Sources

  • West's California Reporter 
    (Ref. KFC 47 .C32)

    The library contains volume 1-1st series (1 Cal. Rptr. 1) through volume 116-3rd series (116 Cal. Rptr.3rd 192). Other than the opinion, cases reported include the West's Key numbers and headnotes. Later cases can be accessed through the online sources below. 
    [Tip: If only the name of the case is known, the West's California Digest contains "Table of Cases" volumes that list cases alphabetically by name and provides the citations.]


2. Online Sources

California Courts: Opinions  

  • This link opens to the opinions section of the Judicial Branch of California's website for published opinions from the "Official Reports" of the California Supreme Court and Courts of Appeals from 1850 to present (current within 90 days of filing).  After opening the link, check the "I have read..." box at the bottom of the page and click "Begin Searching Opinions." When the page opens, note the "Search" options in the left column: By Citation Number, Party Name, and Keyword. "Slip opinions" (unedited prior to being published) from the last 120 days are searchable from the Judicial Branch main page. "Unpublished opinions" of the California Courts of Appeal are also posted for 60 days solely as public information about actions taken by the courts. 
  • Deering's California Codes Annotated
    The Deering's California Codes Annotated file (CACD) contains the statutory code for the State of California as published in the compilation entitled Deering's California Codes Annotated. It includes all laws of a general and permanent nature, as enacted by the California Legislature.Note: California Code archives are available from 1991.
  • FindLaw for Legal Professionals: California Cases
    Provides access to California Supreme and Appellate Court Cases from 1934 to the present. "Advanced Search" opinions include citation number, docket number, party name or full-text keyword. Opinions are displayed in MS Word or PDF formats.
    Note: FindLaw requires free registration to view full-text opinions. 

Finding Web Sites

 Finding Codes & Regulations

California Codes
The California Codes are the compilation of all the statutes that have been enacted by the California legislature and signed into law by the Governor. There are 29 titles subdivided by sections. Each title of the code covers one or more major subject areas (e.g., the Family Code covers family law topics, the Penal Code covers criminal law, etc.). Codes are cited using both the title and section number:


Pen. Code, § 2450 = Penal Code, section 2450.
C.C.P. sec. 1856 = Code of Civil Procedures, section 1856
Family C. 7897(c) = Family Code, section 7879, subsection (c).

[Tip: An abbreviation key to the code titles is available in the front of all of the volumes in the set.]

Two annotated versions of the California statutory codes are published commercially. The code is also available from the California Office of Administrative Law website.

  • West's Annotated California Codes 
    (Ref. KFC 30.5 .W4) 
    In addition to the actual text of the codes, West's annotated codes provide references and summaries to judicial decisions, regulations, and attorney general opinions relating to that statute. Citations to secondary sources related to the statute can also be found along with law review articles and practice guides.
  • California Law 
    This California Office of Administrative Law website contains the full-text of the 29 codes and the State Constitution (text only, no annotations). Search by code section or keyword.

The California Code of Regulations is comprised of 28 Titles and are governed by state agencies who are empowered to make rules and procedures, called regulations, to implement state statutes (example, the California Building Code). The California Code of Regulations is abbreviated as "CCR.” A citation is read "25 CCR 60". The first number is the title number and the second number is the section of the code.

The Library does not contain a print copy of the CCR, but it is available online through the California Office of Administrative Law website (CCR).
Note: The terms "Code of Regulations" and "Administrative Code" are often used interchangeably, however as of 1988, the “Administrative Code” no longer exists.

Instructor Reserves

Citing Sources

  Other Sources: Citing, Dictionaries, Encyclopedias

1. Print Sources

Books, eBooks, and other Library materials can be searched using the Online Catalog.  You can search the catalog by Subject such as Law. Books on law are located in the "K" and parts of the "HV" sections of the library. There are two main categories of books: general and reference. General books (located in the "Stacks" on the lower floor) can be checked out and are often used for more in-depth research. Reference books (located on the upper floor) do not circulate but can be useful for acquiring an overview on a topic.


2. OnLAW 

OnLAW includes access to 150+ publications across seven practice areas: Litigation, Business, Real Property, Estate Planning, Criminal, Family and Employment law. See the following tutorials for assistance on using OnLAW:

3. Westlaw

Westlaw Campus Research is an easy-to-use online full text collection of law-related resources, including cases from the courts of all 50 states and federal courts. Also includes news and business sources. Refer to their help guide if you need further assistance in searching the database: