You are here

Legal Resource Center

Starting Places

About the Law

Secondary sources--legal dictionaries, encyclopedias, and journal articles--can help you understand the law.

    • Ebsco's Academic Search (Members Only)

      Academic Search Complete is a comprehensive scholarly, multi-disciplinary full-text database, with more than 5,300 full-text periodicals, including 4,400 peer-reviewed journals. In addition to full text, this database offers indexing and abstracts for more than 9,300 journals and a total of 10,900 publications including monographs, reports, conference proceedings, etc. The database features PDF content going back as far as 1865, with the majority of full text titles in native (searchable) PDF format.

    • Google Scholar -- using Google Scholar to limit your search to academic journal articles and books is a great way to focus the power of Google searching. Use the library search link below the citation to find a library near you that has the journal.
    • Journals and Law Reviews -- most online law journals are available only if you visit the University Libraries. Below are a few places you can search for articles
    • WEX - From the Cornell LII, one of the only free legal dictionaries and encyclopedias


A constitution is the fundamental document that establishes the structure of the government of a country or a state and enumerates its powers. It also outlines the fundamental rights of all citizens. As the primary founding document, no legislature or executive agency can promulgate a statute or regulation that violates a provision of the constitution or its amendments. The courts decide whether or not laws and regulations violate the constitution.

  • The Constitution of the United States outlines the structure of the federal government, how responsibilities are divided among the 3 branches of government, and what duties/responsibilities are assigned to the federal government. Those duties not specifically assigned to the federal government are delegated to the states. The constitution can be amended following the procedures proscribed in the constitution
    • Constitution -- from the Government Printing office -- with analysis and interpretation and related documents.
    • Annotated Constitution (from the Congressional Research Service) -- explains and provides citations to major court cases related to the constitution. Hosted by Cornell.
    • Primary Documents in American History -- from the Library of Congress. Includes the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, Federalist Papers, and Documents from the Constitutional Convention.
  • The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
  • Other state constitutions -- a listing from FindLaw


A statute is the law as passed by the U.S. Congress or a State Legislature. At the local level statutes are most often called ordinances. In most cases, statutory laws are published in 2 forms, a chronological form exactly as passed by the legislature and a codified form in which the laws are arranged by topic and all superseded and repealed laws are removed. For example, federal laws are published in chronological form in the U.S. Statutes at Large, and codified in the United States Code. In Pennsylvania, the chronological form of the laws are the Laws of Pennsylvania and the codified version is Purdon's Pennsylvania Statutes Annotated.


Regulations, the detailed rules that outline how statutes will be enforced, have the force of law. While legislative bodies write statutory law, administrative agencies of the executive branch of government produce regulations. Regulations are written by all levels of government: federal, state, and local. Like statutes, regulations are generally published in two versions. A chronological version and a codified version. For example: federal regulations are published daily in the Federal Register and then codified in the Code of Federal Regulations. Pennsylvania's regulations are published chronologically in the Pennsylvania Bulletin and codified in the Pennsylvania Code.

Case Law

Courts interpret statutes and regulations. Generally there are two types of courts trial courts and appeals courts. Trial courts determine matters of fact and and "apply the law" to that specific set of facts. Appeals courts determine whether the statutes and regulations have been applied fairly and correctly in trial courts or a lower appeals court. The opinions rendered by courts, especially appeals court decisions, constitute the body of case law. Case law evolves as the courts continue to interpret laws and regulations. Courts must follow precedent, which means a lower court must follow the decision of the higher appeals court. This principle is called stare decisis.

All case law is influenced by jurisdiction, or the authority given by law to a court to hear the case. There are courts with federal jurisdiction, courts with jurisdiction in a particular type of case, and courts with local jurisdiction.

Federal courts have jurisdiction over matters related to federal statutes and regulations, as well as the U. S. Constitution. They also have jurisdiction in matters involving citizens of two different states. Federal courts include: State courts have jurisdiction over matters related to its own state statutes and regulations, and the state constitution. Each of the jurisdictions has a final court of appeal (e.g. the U. S. Supreme Court, or Pennsylvania Supreme Court). Information on the structure of the Pennsylvania Court can be found at the website of the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania. For more information consult Understanding the difference between Federal and State Courts