ResearchWire – In Search of “Good” Law on the Net

Genie Tyburski is the Research Librarian for Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and the editor of The Virtual Chase Web Site: A Research Site for Legal Professionals.

(Archived June 24, 1997)

“Your column is greatly needed. I have been searching the web for sites that show how to conduct legal research on the web; for example, how to find a federal regulation and then make sure that the regulation is still current. The same would apply to federal statutes. If you covered these two areas, you would provide many of us with help.”

— James M. Morrissey
Buffalo, NY

Just as those conducting research in a traditional law library, Internet users will find many sources offering federal regulatory and statutory law.1 This text or commentary appears on government agency and educational institution sites, personal and law firm home pages, advocacy and professional association sites, quasi-governmental pages and elsewhere.

Should legal professionals consider the source; i.e., the Internet site, before relying on information it provides? How do we ascertain that the law we find is current, complete, and accurate?

Legal professionals select information sources for many reasons: past experience with the publication, its ease of use, its reputation as an “authority,” or even its location (displayed prominently) or availability (not on loan). Only infrequently do researchers take into account the source’s suitability to the question. It seems we trust that which we read, at least as we read it in conventional publications.

The novelty surrounding Internet, however, gives us pause to reflect on the pertinence of a source. Mr. Morrissey, who may be a careful researcher under any circumstances, wants assurance that the regulation or statute he plucks off the ‘Net is good law. All consumers of legal information should demand such quality.

But how do we ascertain quality on Internet? In next month’s column, I will detail methods for evaluating Internet resources. For the moment, suffice it to say that superior information sources possess five characteristics: timeliness, expediency, accuracy, objectivity, and authenticity.

Timeliness and expediency refer to the speed with which a source makes up-to-date information available. Accuracy pertains to the completeness, factual irrefutability, and verifiability of a source. Objectivity encompasses impartial unbiased interpretation or analysis. Authenticity deals with the authority and expertise of a source, which may include its appearance.

With respect to current federal regulations and statutes, one site — GPO Access — surpasses most others by meeting the criteria for quality. GPO Access is the official web site of the Government Printing Office, the agency charged with “print[ing], bind[ing], and distribut[ing] the publications of the Congress as well as the executive departments and establishments of the Federal Government.”

With this statement, researchers discover the site’s authority. By reviewing specific database contents, researchers learn about the timeliness and updating frequency of certain publications. For example, we read that GPO Access offers a version of the United States Code “in effect as of January 1994 or January 1995 depending on the title.” In truth, most sections appear current as of January 16, 1996. As Tom Carr, a paralegal specialist with the Congressional Research Service, explained in a recent e-mail message, “confusion comes from the fact that the 1994 and 1995 dates are actually referring to the currency [i.e., copyright dates] of the printed volumes of the official Code.”2

The GPO entry continues by explaining the editorial process and highlighting some special features of the United States Code as offered via GPO Access. It notes that “the header of each section indicates when a recent Public Law affects that particular section, but the text remains unchanged until the annual revision cycle” (emphasis added).

Knowledge of this difference from the annotated print publications of the Code is critical to a researcher’s successful use of it via GPO Access. Those of us accustomed to using either U.S.C.A. or U.S.C.S. know to check the pocket parts and supplementary pamphlets for changes in the law since the publication of the bound volumes.

When using the U.S.C. via GPO Access, we must handle the updating process differently. First, we take note of the information contained in the section header. See, for example, 15 U.S.C. Sec. 78a. The header reveals that the section, relating to the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, is in effect as of January 16, 1996 and not affected by laws enacted between January 16, 1996 and August 28, 1996.3

Is it good law? We have no way of knowing the answer to this question unless we check laws enacted since August 28, 1996. Can we do this at GPO Access? Yes.

Select both “Public Laws, 104th Congress” and “Public Laws, 105th Congress” from the database list. For the aforementioned example, enter the query, “15 usc 78a.” It should retrieve Public Law 104-290, the National Securities Markets Improvement Act of 1996.

The new law amends the note portion of 15 U.S.C. Sec. 78a. A reading of both the U.S.C. section and Public Law 104-290 gives the researcher an understanding of the current state of the law.

From this example, we may determine that GPO Access provides researchers with a more expedient means for obtaining current law than traditional research methods! The database contents for Public Laws explains that GPO Access adds slip laws as it receives them from the Office of the Federal Register, the National Archives and Records Administration division responsible for publishing and compiling slip laws. It seems likely, then, that GPO Access would make the slip law available before many libraries receive it in session law form.

To conclude that legal professionals should forego traditional research methods with respect to the U.S.C., and conduct all future federal statutory searching at G.P.O. Access, however, is to place too much confidence in database systems and our ability to retrieve information from them. Research is an art, not a science. Any strategy or source may ultimately prove fallible. In fact, in a subsequent communication, Mr. Carr informed me that something corrupted the U.S.C. database’s citation field for Title 29 so that 29 U.S.C. Sec. 706, for example, appears as 29 U.S.C. Sec. 1A706.4

I would suggest that researchers use whichever method — manual or electronic — they prefer. At times when we must know with absolute certainty that the law we retrieve is current, complete, and accurate, we should verify it. GPO Access provides us with a means for confirming our research findings; or vice versa, the books give us a way to substantiate the outcome of GPO Access searching.

GPO Access proves an good source of current statutory law, but can researchers use it to obtain up-to-date federal regulations? The answer depends on the length of time the regulation has been in effect or whether GPO Access has added the appropriate title to its Code of Federal Regulations database. If an agency promulgated its regulation(s) since January 1994 or if the regulation appears in one of the C.F.R. titles added to the database, then researchers may find current regulatory law at GPO Access.

For example, wanting to find EPA regulations pertaining to the recycling of beverage containers, we first confirm that the C.F.R. database offers title 40 and note its revision date, July 1, 1996. Then we enter the query, recycl* AND “beverage containers.” It retrieves several likely references including Part 244 — Solid Waste Management Guidelines for Beverage Containers.

Having the state of the law as of July 1, 1996, we now move to the Federal Register database to find out if any recently promulgated rules amend 40 C.F.R. Part 244. We check the issue boxes for 1997 and 1996 and the section box for “final rules and regulations,” enter the date range, July 1, 1996 to May 2, 1997,5 and the query, “40 CFR part 244.”

It retrieves two revisions: one on December 31, 1996 and another on May 2, 1997. The December 31, 1996 revision removes the guidelines at 40 CFR Part 244. The agency considers them obsolete and promulgates their removal without prior proposal. It offers the public 30 days with which to send adverse comments to this rulemaking. The public complies, we discover, causing the agency to withdraw its removal of the regulations on May 2, 1997.

Because we found the law in a title covered by GPO Access’ C.F.R. database, and because we successfully retrieved revisions from its Federal Register database, we possess the current state of the law. Too many implied ifs exist in the preceding statement, however, to take comfort in using GPO Access exclusively to find current regulatory law.

We cannot overlook manual and other electronic sources for this information. Again, when we absolutely positively have to have the current state of the law, we should verify that which we find.

To emphasize the importance of verification, imagine that we had conducted the same research manually on the same date — May 2, 1997. Assuming we have access to an average law library, it is unlikely we would have found the May 2nd revision since most libraries do not receive the Federal Register on the date of publication.

When used with knowledge of its limitations, GPO Access excells at providing the public and the legal profession with current federal statutory and regulatory law. It is not perfect. But then again, neither are other relevant resources; nor, for that matter, research strategies.



1. For sources or finding aids of federal statutory and regulatory law, see the Suggested Sites listed below.

2. Private e-mail communication to the author on May 8, 1997 re: U.S. Code Currency.

3. Research performed on April 30, 1997.

4. Private e-mail communication to the author on May 9, 1997. I was able to duplicate this error with several sections of Title 29.

5. Research performed on May 2, 1997.

Suggested Sites

Federal Web Locator
GPO Access Searching Tips
The Regulation Home Page

GPO Access
GPO Access on the Web (Purdue)
GPO Access on the Web (Univ. of Michigan)
GPO Gate
House of Representatives C.F.R.
House of Representatives U.S.C.
United States Code (Cornell)

Posted in: Evaluation of Internet Resources, ResearchWire