Law and Government

Part I of this page details resources on the United States federal government, including its formative documents, Congress, the executive branch, and the judiciary.

Part II provides resources relating to Virginia law and the law of other states.

Part III provides information on public and private international law and  on foreign law.

And Part IV provides information on academic research related to law and government. A free, online legal dictionary is available here.

Key Links

 

I.     FEDERAL

A.     Formative Documents

The Declaration of Independence, adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, stated that the thirteen colonies were no longer part of the British Empire.

The Articles of Confederation, drafted in 1777 by the Second Continental Congress and ratified in 1781, was the first  document to provide for the constitution of the federal government.

The United States Constitution, drafted by the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and ratified by a majority of the states in 1788, replaced the Articles of Confederation. The Constitution has been amended twenty-seven times. The first ten amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, became effective in 1791. The remaining sixteen amendments became effective between 1794 and 1992. An annotated version of the Constitution is available here.

B.     Legislature

The legislative powers of the federal government are vested in the United States Congress. Congress itself is divided into two houses: the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The Senate contains 20 committees and 68 subcommittees, along with 4 joint committees (with the House). Useful resources include committee reports (also available here), transcripts of hearings before the committees, and committee prints.

The House contains 19 committees, 2 select committees, and, again, participates in joint committees with the Senate. As with the Senate, useful House committee resources include committee reports (also available here), transcripts of hearings before the committees, and committee prints.

The Congressional Record is the official record of the proceedings and debates of both houses of Congress. Video footage of congressional and committee proceedings are available on committee websites and through C-SPAN’s Video Library.

Before a text becomes law, it is first presented as a bill. The text of all recent bills may be found here (GPO Access) and here (Thomas).

Where the Senate and House disagree on a bill’s language, members of both houses may form a conference committee to resolve any discrepancies. The conference committee may produce a conference report.

General and permanent federal statutes are codified in the United States Codehere (also available in its official, printed form here). A database of all public and private laws enacted by Congress, including those not codified in the United States Code, is available here.

Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports and Congressional Research Service reports may provide further useful information on the legal and policy concerns of members of Congress. Additionally, the Government Printing Office, an agency of the legislative branch, prints official documents for Congress, the Supreme Court, the President and executive departments and agencies, and independent agencies.

B.     Executive

The executive powers of the federal government are vested in the President, whose work is supported by the Executive Office of the President. The White House Briefing Room provides access to the President’s public statements and policy initiatives. Video footage of presidential news conferences are available through C-SPAN’s Video Library.

Many of the everyday tasks of the Executive Branch have been delegated to fifteen executive departments–including the Department of Justice, the Department of State, the Department of the Treasury, the Department of Defense, and the Department of the Interior, among others–, and other agencies–including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency.

Other executive-type tasks are handled by independent agencies, which are not directly subject to the President’s authority.

The general, permanent rules and regulations of federal agencies are contained in the Code of Federal Regulations (also available here). Routine publications, public notices, and announcements of federal agencies are recorded in the Federal Register.

C.     Judiciary

Although executive agencies adjudicate certain claims, the Constitution generally vests the judicial powers of the federal government in the federal judiciary. The federal judiciary basically contains three levels: 94 district (or trial) courts, 11 courts of appeal (or circuit courts), and the Supreme Court. Resources for each court can be found on that court’s website. Marshall High School is located in the jurisdiction of the Eastern District Court of Virginia and the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

Further information on cases before the Supreme Court, including case summaries and transcripts and audio recordings of oral arguments, can be found at OyezCornell, and ScotusWiki, and of course on the Supreme Court’s own website.

Instead of general geographic jurisdiction, some courts have original (trial) jurisdiction or appellate jurisdiction over certain subject matter, for example the United States Tax Court, the Court of Federal Claims, the Court of International Trade, the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, and the Federal Circuit (patent cases), among others.

Decisions of these courts can be found in many places, including here, general Google searches (including Google Books, which has digitized many older legal reporters), and subscription databases available at university and government libraries (including the Library of Congress).

II.    STATE

A.     Virginia

Like the federal government, Virginia has its own constitution, which governs the workings of the state government and the rights of Virginians.

Virginia’s legislative branch is the General Assembly, which meets in Richmond. It is divided into two houses: the House of Delegates and the Senate. The Virginia Code is available here.

Virginia’s executive branch is headed by the Governor. Like the federal government, Virginia has a variety of administrative agencies. The Virginia Administrative Code is available here. The Virginia Register of Regulations is available here. Legal services are provided to the Virginia government by the Office of the Attorney General.

Information on the Virginia courts is available here.

Besides the state government, local governments in Virginia, for example Fairfax County, also exercise considerable control over residents’ day-to-day lives.

B.     Other States

Information on the legal systems of other states may be found on the official websites of each state government, from Cornell’s Legal Information Institute here (listed by state) and here (listed by subject matter), and from FindLaw here. State constitutions may be found via FindLaw here.

III.     INTERNATIONAL

A.     Public International Law

Public international law governs the conduct and relations of sovereign states and intergovernmental organizations with each other and, in some cases, with individuals. Sources of public international include the Law of Nations and international conventions and treaties.  Treaties to which the United States is a party are available here.

Important supranational bodies include the United Nations, the European Union, the Organization of American States, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Information on public international law is available at here (GlobaLex).

B.     Private International Law

Private international law (or “conflict of laws”) governs disputes between private parties. It involves the questions of which jurisdiction should hear the dispute (“jurisdiction”), and which jurisdiction’s law should be applied to resolve the dispute (“choice of law”). The Hague Conference on Private International Law, of which the United States is a member, is the most important organization dealing with private international law issues.

C.     Foreign Law

Foreign law concerns the internal law of sovereign states (e.g., Canadian law). Some resources on foreign law are available here (Global Legal Information Network), here (Cornell), here (GlobaLex), and here (Georgetown). World constitutions are available here (U. Richmond).

The Law Library of Congress produces the Global Legal Monitor, an online publication “covering legal news and developments worldwide. It is updated frequently and draws on information from the Global Legal Information Network, official national legal publications, and reliable press sources.”

IV.     ACADEMIC

Academic literature on law and government is available from many sources, including JSTOR (which contains a variety of law reviews and other legal journals and government and political science journals), the Library of Congress (especially the Law Library of Congress), Google Scholar, and local public, university, and government libraries.