Skip to main content

Law: Federal Laws

What do Federal Laws Cover?

STATUTES are the laws passed by Congress (the legislative branch).

REGULATIONS are the rules passed by the various federal departments and agencies (the executive branch) to enforce the statutes. 

CASE LAW refers to the opinions or decisions by judges (the judicial branch) interpreting the constitution, statutes, regulations and prior case law.

Due to federalism, federal laws only apply to federal issues and federal courts typically only hear cases involving federal issues such as: 

  • federal laws or regulations (for example: tax, Social Security, broadcasting, civil rights)
  • interstate and international commerce, including airline and railroad regulation.
  • securities and commodities regulation, including takeover of publicly held corporations.
  • international trade law matters.
  • patent, copyright, and other intellectual property issues.
  • rights under treaties, foreign states, and foreign nationals.
  • bankruptcy matters.
  • disputes between states.
  • habeas corpus actions.
  • crimes under statutes enacted by congress.

To learn more visit the United States Courts website at :

http://www.uscourts.gov/EducationalResources/FederalCourtBasics/CourtStructure/JurisdictionOfStateAndFederalCourts.aspx.

Finding Federal Statutes, Rules or Regulations

Federal laws are published in different places. See the links below for selected sources.

What does "shepardizing" a case mean?

Lawyers never want to cite any case law that has been overturned or is outdated.   To make sure this doesn't happen, attorneys "Shepardize" every case they cite. This means that they look for any cases that have cited the case(s) they are relying on.  

"Shepard's Citations" is the tool used to "Shepardize" a case and it is available through Lexis Nexis.

See the following Lexis-Nexis tutorial on how to use this tool:

Shepard's Citations

How the Federal Courts are Structured

Federal Court Structure

(image from USCourts.gov)

Finding Federal Case Law

Federal case law includes decisions  by any of the Federal Courts - the U.S. Supreme Court, one of the Appellate Courts or one of the Trial  Courts (see Federal Court Structure box). 

  • Most case law can be accessed electronically through the courts or through LexisNexis Academic.

How do you decode a legal citation?

A legal citation includes:

  • the volume number
  • the name of the publication in abbreviated format
  • the page number

For example:

  • 45 U.S. 239 means you will find the case in volume 45 of the United States Reports on page 239
  • 26 U.S.C. 98 means you will find this statute in Title 26 of the United States Code on page 98
  • 13. N.Y. City L. Rev. 34 means you will find this law review article in volume 13 of the New York City Law Review on page 34.