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Primary Sources of Federal Law



Constitution text

Documents that show the framers' (or ratifiers') intent, including:

  1. speeches and writings of early American statesmen
  2. records of the Federal Convention
  3. records of state debates on ratification
  4. the Federalist Papers (Hamilton, Madison & Jay)
  5. writings of the Anti federalists
  6. contemporary accouns in newspapers


Legislative Branch


Documents emerging from the legislative process

  1. drafts and differing versions of bills
  2. House & Senate Committee Hearings
  3. House & Senate Committee Reports (Serial Set)
  4. floor debate (Congressional Record)
  5. Conference Committee reports


Judicial Branch

Court Opinions/Decisions interpreting law

Briefs submitted by the parties

Oral arguments


Executive Branch

Presidential signing statements

Executive Orders & Proclamations

Regulations and documents coming out of rulemaking procedures

Opinions of the Attorney General


How to find primary sources

Compilations of documents

Author search in catalog:
     names of "key players"

Subject search or keyword search:

The following words often appear in the subject headings for primary sources. Since keyword searches search the subject heading field, in  addition to other fields, you may want to include these terms in your searches, or use these words to limit ("Words in subject") after a keyword or subject search.

  • sources
  • correspondence
  • diaries
  • journals
  • interviews




  1. Search catalog by title Constitution of the United States
  2. Core Documents of Democracy through GPO Access
  3. LexisNexis Academic Legal - Federal and State Codes
  4. Encyclopedia Britannica
  5. The Constitution of the United States of America, analysis and interpretation: annotations of cases decided by the Supreme Court of the United States to ...
    Case Ref Document Y 1.1/3: (most recent issue)
    LASR Gov't Document (older issues)
    Colgate Network

Records of the state debaties on ratification:

The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution
Tracse the Constitution's progress through each of the thirteen states' conventions

Author catalog search

     United States. Continental Congress
            Papers of the Continental Congress
            Journal of the Continental Congress
    "key players", e.g. the federalists

Contemporary accounts in newspapers, broadsides, etc.

Archive of Americana
Includes Early American Imprints (Evans and Shaw-Shoemaker) and Early American Newspapers series 1-7 and African American Newspapers 1827-1998

Nineteenth Century Masterfile
Important index to 19th century American and English periodicals.  This database also indexes books, newspapers, patents, and government documents published in the United States prior to 1930. This is not a full text database, but we do have access to much of the material.

Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO)
Every significant English-language and foreign-language title printed in Great Britain during the eighteenth century, along with thousands of important works from the Americas.

Other historical newspaper databases

Documents that show intent:

Catalog subject search or keyword search.
     Constitutional amendments -- United States
     Constitutional history -- United States
     Constitutional law -- United States
     United States Constitution
     United States Constitutional Convention (1787)
     various terms that describe the subject of each amendment:
          e.g. Firearms -- Law and legislation

Legislative Branch

    LexisNexis Congressional (now ProQuest Congressional) 1989-
    FDsys 1993/94-
    Thomas 1989-
    Case Microfiche Documents Y 1.4/ 1979-2000

Bill Summary & Tracking
    Thomas 1973-
    LexisNexis Congressional (now ProQuest Congressional) 1989-
    Digest of Public General Bills and Resolutions 1936-1990
        Case Ref Documents LC 14.6:
    History of Bills & Resolutions (part of Congressional Record Index, see below)

Committee hearings
    LexisNexis Congressional (now ProQuest Congressional) 1824-

Full text:
    Case Documents all
    FDsys(selected )1997-
    LexisNexis Congressional (now ProQuest Congressional) (selected) 1988-

Committee reports/Serial Set
    LexisNexis Congressional (now ProQuest Congressional) 1789-

Full text  
    Case Documents 1976- 
    FDsys 1995-
    LexisNexis Congressional (now ProQuest Congressional) 1990/1995-

Congressional Debates
(Annals of Congress, Register of Debates, Congressional Globe, Congressional Record)
   Case Ref Documents X 1.1: (Permanent volume indexes)
   FDsys (Daily indexes) 1993-
   A Century of Lawmaking 1789-1873
   Thomas 1989-

   LASR Gov't Docs Permanent 1789-1986
   Case Microfiche Documents Permanent 1985-
   LexisNexis Congressional (now ProQuest Congressional) Daily 1985-
   FDsys Daily 1994-
   FDsys Permanent 1998-
   Thomas Daily 1989-
   A Century of Lawmaking Permanent 1789-1873

   Statutes at Large LASR Gov't Docs AE 2.111:
       (each volume has an index)
   LexisNexis Congressional (now ProQuest Congressional) 1988-  
    FDSys 2003-
    FindLaw & other websites

Legislative Histories
    LexisNexis Congressional (now ProQuest Congressional) 1988-  
   U.S. Federal Legislative Histories (Hein Online)
   Statutes at Large LASR Gov't Docs AE 2.111: (older vols).


Judicial Branch

Supreme Court Opinions

United States Reports (1754- )
LASR Gov't Docs JU 6.8:
(each volume has an index)

LexisNexis Academic (1790- )
Select U.S. Legal - Federal and State Cases -Jurisdiction: U.S. Supreme Court.
Lawyers Ed. includes annotated references.

United States Supreme Court (2006 term- )

FindLaw (1983- )
Also includes Opinion summaries from 2000-

Google Scholar
Full text legal opinions from U.S. federal and state district, appellate and supreme courts. Check the button for "Legal opinions and journals" before searching. Seach by case name (like Planned Parenthood v. Casey) or by topices (like desegregation). More information from the Google blog.

FEDWORLD/FLITE Supreme Court Decisions Homepage Unrestricted Access Some full text available
Provides access to ASCII text of U.S. Supreme Court Decisions from 19367-1975. also has 325 historic court decisions. Also available via FDSys

Project Hermes Unrestricted Access Some full text available
Access to U.S. Supreme Court decisions and orders, released electronically by the court, from 1990-- via Cornell University's Legal Information Institute (HTML, PDF formats). Also contains information such as court calendar and rules.

Refugee Case Law Unrestricted Access Some full text available
"This site is designed to assist judges, advocates, and policymakers around the world to access leading court decisions that interpret the refugee definition set by the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. Our core collection contains cases from the highest national courts of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. These cases have been selected and summarized by the Director of the Refugee Caselaw Site.

Briefs submitted by the parties (Supreme Court)

Landmark briefs and arguments of the Supreme Court of the United States
Case Main KF101.9 .L36

LexisNexis Academic US Legal -- Supreme Court Briefs
Supreme Court merit briefs for cases granted cert., amicus curiae briefs, joint appendices and special masters beginning in January 1979, with selected coverage from 1936. All briefs for cases granted cert. begins after 1993. Also includes all briefs for cases petitioning for cert. after 2001.

For October 1999 term to the present includes petitioner, respondent, reply and amicus briefs in multiple formats.

American Bar Association
Merit briefs from 2003-

Office of the Solicitor General (Dept. of Justice) From 7/1998 to present, all briefs filed by the Solicitor General, except responses to IFP cases. From 1993-1996, and 1986-1990 Solicitor General merits briefs and responses. From 1982-1985 Solicitor General merits briefs. Please see the web site for information on omissions, arrangement, and formats

Supreme Court Oral Arguments

Supreme Court 2000-
Oyez varies

Supreme Court data and analysis

The Supreme Court Compendium
    Case Ref KF8742.S914 2007

The Supreme Court Database

Executive Branch

American Presidency Project
    Full text of signing statements, Public Papers of the President, executive orders and proclamations, press conferences, and more. Only place to read signing statments.

Weekly Compilations of Presidential Documents (1965-2008)
    see Journal Finder

Daily Compilation of Presidential Documents (2009-)
    see Journal Finder

Public Papers of the President (Hoover, Truman- )
    Case Ref Documents AE 2.114:
    American Presidency Project

Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents
(1789-1897, Washington-Cleveland)
    Case Ref Documents AE 2.113:
    LASR Main 353.03 Un31

Codification of Presidential proclamations and executive orders
(1945-89, Truman-Regan)
   Case Ref Documents AE 2.113:

Search Presidents as authors in catalog.

Federal Register
    FDsys 1994-

Code of Federal Regulations
    Case Ref Documents AE 2.106/3:
        current year and all of Title 3 (the president)
    LASR Gov't Docs AE 2.106/3:
    FDsys 1996-

National Archives Executive Orders (1993- )

Index to executive proclamations and orders (1789-1980)
    CIS Index to Presidential Executive Orders & Proclamations
    Case Ref Documents Z1223.Z7 C65 1987
    can borrow texts

U.S. Attorney General Opinions (Hein Online)

Opinions of the Office of Legal Counsel of the United States Department of Justice (Hein Online)


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