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May 5, 2016

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Legal Research Guide

This guide provides an overview of legal resources available in the VVC library, primarily focusing on California legal research. Depending on the type of information needed - locating a case, identifying a code, answering a legal question - the guide lists relevant sources, both print and electronic, for each section. Remember that currency is a key component in legal research. Be sure to check the "pocket part" supplements for the most current revisions, cases and laws. Supplements can be separate, or inserted in the back of each volume.
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 California Court System
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 Basic Legal Research
  • California Jurisprudence 3d (Cal Jur 3d)
    (Ref. KFC 80 .C25
    Cal Jur 3d is a legal encyclopedia published by the West Group. There are over 70 volumes in the set, arranged alphabetically by legal topic. Each topic contains relevant references to California codes, regulations, case reporters, the West California Digest key number, and Witkin. Separate volumes at the end of the set include a subject index, a table of cases, and a table of statutes.
    Tip: Refer to the outline at the beginning of each chapter listing the structure of legal topics, subsections, and classification of the material covered.
  • Summary of California Law (Witkin, 10th ed.)
    (Ref. KFC 80 .W5)
    A multivolume set that presents expert analysis and an extensive, integrated treatment of all major California substantive law topics: Workers' Compensation, Parent and Child, Husband and Wife, Personal Property, Torts, etc. Relevant references to California codes, regulations, case reporters, and the West's California Digest key number system are provided for each topic. A separate index volume is also available.
    Tip: Refer to the outline at the beginning of each chapter showing the structure of legal topic and subsections identifying and classifying aspects of the material covered.
  • West's California Digest 2d (West)
    (Ref. KFC 57 W53)
    A "digest" contains citations and headnotes taken from cases and categorized by a legal topic. West's California Digest 2d includes cases from West's California Reporter published since 1950. The research value of West's digest lies in the combination of headnotes--a sentence-long summary of a legal issue discussed in a case--and the West's key number system. The key number system classifies the law into topics and subtopics that are arranged alphabetically in the digest.


    In the example above, Key number 204 refers to "Child's preference" within the topic of Child Custody. Cases on this point are located in the digest under "Child Custody" followed by the key number. Digests are often useful for locating on-point cases based on key numbers referenced in secondary sources.
    Tip: Refer to the outline at the beginning of each chapter showing the structure of legal topics and the key number classification.
  • LexisNexis Academic (Library Database, On-Campus Only)
    See separate heading below.
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 Finding Case Law

When judges and courts decide cases, written opinions are published in case reporters explaining the reasoning in reaching their decisions. As noted above under “California Court System,” only the opinions of the Court of Appeals and the California Supreme Court are published; Superior Court decisions are not published. These judicial opinions are an important source of legal authority and are used by other courts to decide cases on the basis of principles and rules established in earlier decisions (called precedents). When court opinions are referenced in a legal treatise (a reference book covering a specific area of law) and other secondary sources, the citations are usually in the form of a "parallel citation," citing both the state "official" reporter and subsequent "unofficial" reporters. The text of the opinion is the same in all sources, whether "official" or "unofficial." Example:

Finding Cases by Citation or Party Name

1. Print Sources
  • West's California Reporter
    (Ref. KFC 47 C32)
    The library contains volume 1-1st series (1 Cal. Rptr. 1) through volume 116-3rd series (116 Cal. Rptr.3rd 192). Other than the opinion, cases reported include the West's Key numbers and headnotes. Later cases can be accessed through the online sources below.
    Tip: If only the name of the case is known, the West's California Digest contains "Table of Cases" volumes that list cases alphabetically by name and provides the citations.

2. Online Sources

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 Finding Codes & Regulations

The California Codes are the compilation of all the statutes that have been enacted by the California legislature and signed into law by the Governor. There are 29 titles subdivided by sections. Each title of the code covers one or more major subject areas (e.g., the Family Code covers family law topics, the Penal Code covers criminal law, etc.). Codes are cited using both the title and section number:


Pen. Code, § 2450 = Penal Code, section 2450.
C.C.P. sec. 1856 = Code of Civil Procedures, section 1856
Family C. 7897(c)
= Family Code, section 7879, subsection (c).

  • West's Annotated California Codes
    Ref. KFC 30.5 W4)
    In addition to the actual text of the codes, West's annotated codes provide references and summaries to judicial decisions, regulations, and attorney general opinions relating to that statute. Citations to secondary sources related to the statute can also be found along with law review articles and practice guides.
  • Deering's California Codes Annotated (LexisNexis)
    See separate heading for LexisNexis below.

The California Code of Regulations is comprised of 28 Titles and are governed by state agencies who are empowered to make rules and procedures, called regulations, to implement state statutes (example, the California Building Code). The California Code of Regulations is abbreviated as "CCR.” A citation is read "25 CCR 60". The first number is the title number and the second number is the section of the code.

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 Using LexisNexis Academic
  • Finding Cases by Citation, Name, or Topic
    Click on "Look up a Legal Case" (Fig. 1-1) enter a valid case citation in the Quick Search box under "By Citation." Example: 153 Cal. App. 4th 1546.
    Tip: Capitalization is not necessary, but punctuation and spacing are required.

    When the names of the parties (Plaintiff and Defendants) are known, enter the names under "by Parties." In a case with multiple plaintiffs or defendants, the name of any party involved can be searched, but the results list will only show the name of the official citation.

    The "by Topic" option applies only to the terms that appear in "Headnotes" and "Core Terms" used in summarizing the key points of law in each case. (See below under Advanced Search for other options related to searching by Topic.)

Finding Cases: Advanced Search

Although the Quick Search option is convenient, with the exception of the exact citation it does not allow for limiting searches to specific types of cases, i.e., California cases. For more search options, click on "Search By Content Type" (Fig. 2-1) and click "Federal and State Cases" (Fig. 2-2).


On the "Federal and State Cases Search" page (Fig. 3), click "Advanced Options" (Fig. 3-1). Notice that the page also contains links to Landmark Cases of the U.S. Supreme Court on numerous areas of law.

The "Advanced Options" page (Fig. 4) allows you to apply search limiters to cases by date, case segments, and specific courts.

  • Limit Cases to California
    On the "Advanced Options" page (Fig. 4) uncheck the box for "All Federal & State Courts" (Fig. 4-1) and check the box for California under "States" (Fig. 4-2). Scroll to the bottom of the page and click "Apply" to continue your search.
  • Finding Cases by Keyword or Subject
    The Advanced Search option also allow searching for keywords or subjects that appear in a specific section of a case. The "Segment Search" (Fig. 4-3) can be used to limit searches to one or more case sections including "Headnotes," "Opinion," and "Summary." When searching for multiple terms, use the w/5 connector (w = words and 5 = the number of words that separate the search terms; the number can be adjusted) or w/p = words within the same paragraph (also w/s = words within the same sentence) to refine your search. When using the segment search, type the keywords within the brackets:

    Example: Headnote (child w/1 support) and Opinion (modify)

    The w/5, w/p, and w/s connectors can also be combined with the "Topic" quick search (Fig. 1). After you enter the search terms, scroll to the bottom of the page and click "Apply."

    Because the wording to describe the same point of law may vary from one case to another, the format of the search terms will have an effect on the results. Here are some examples:
  • child support = This search will retrieve cases that contain the words "child" and "support" but not necessarily "child support." The search results may contain numerous irrelevant cases. For example, one case retrieved deals with "support" for a teacher's union and the impact on every "child" in the event of a strike.

    "child support" = Placing quotation marks around multiple words will create an exact phrase search. However, if the wording in the case description was, "provide support for the child," the case would not be included in the search results.

    child w/5 support = Using w/5 (the terms appear within 5 words) will retrieve both "child support" and any case in which "child" and "support" appear within 5 words (The number can be adjusted to refine the search results. Other options include w/s = sentence and w/p = paragraph.)

Shepard's Citations (Case Treatment)

When a case is Shepardized in LexisNexis, a summary is provided showing how a case has been treated when cited in subsequent cases. The report shows every opinion where that case has been referenced, indicating both good and bad law. If the case has been overruled, it is considered "bad law" and may no longer be cited as a legal precedent. The following symbols are used to describe a case treatment:

A convenient way to identify a case treatment is by the symbol that appears in the upper-left corner when viewing an opinion (Fig. 2.) Clicking on the symbol will automatically Shepardize the case. Another method is to select Shepardize under "Next Steps" which will also open directly to the Shepard's report.

When viewing a case in Shepard's, a useful feature is to limit the summary by treatment. Under "Restricted By" (Fig. 3), the treatment can be narrowed to a specific analysis (ex. negative treatment only). This is particularly helpful when a case includes hundreds of cited references.

Codes & Regulations

Located under "Search by Content Type," (Fig.2-1) is a link to "State Statutes, Codes & Regulations." Click on the link and select California under "State," and either Statutory Code or Administrative Code (CCR) under "Select Sources." LexisNexis contains the online version of Deering's California Codes Annotated and Barclays Official California Code of Regulations. Search options include browsing by title and section number or search by topic or keyword.

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 Other Sources: Citing, Dictionaries, Encyclopedias

1. Print Sources

  • Black's Law Dictionary, 9th Edition
    (Ref. KF156 .B53 2009)

    The dictionary contains more than 40,000 terms, alternate spellings or equivalent expressions for more than 5,000 terms, and West key numbers. Also includes the date when selected terms were first used in English-language contexts, especially in judicial opinions.
  • Constitutional Amendments
    (Ref. KKF 4557 G76 2012)
    A 2 volume encyclopedia that defines the 27 amendments in comprehensive chapters with supportive materials including debates, articles, reports, and Supreme Court cases.
  • The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation, 19th Edition
    (Ref. KF 245 U55 2010)
    The Bluebook is a style guide that prescribes the most widely used legal citation system in the United States. The citation format is taught and used at a majority of U.S. law schools, and is also used in a majority of U.S. federal courts. Note that many state courts, as well as the U.S. Supreme Court, have their own citation rules that take precedence over The Bluebook.

2. Online Sources

The following sources are included in LexisNexis Academic under US Legal > Legal Reference in the database.
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