Statutory Interpretation, Lesson 3, Part 2: Advanced Search Techniques

July 1, 2014

Law school blog 5 #3 Finding Case Law by Sub-Section

Another strategy for finding case law that interprets or defines a particular phrase or word is to search by statutory sub-section. If we cannot find material that explicitly mentions the words or phrases we are looking for, we may still be able to gain insight into the statute by looking at cases that explicitly mention the sub-section the terms or phrases occur in. There are three different Terms & Connectors strategies you can use depending on the types of statutes you are dealing with.

A)    Simplified Statutes

Many states such as Minnesota and Georgia, use a very simple statutory format where all the numbers of the statute are in one place. Minnesota statutes have a chapter followed by a period, followed by the section number, Georgia statutes separate each title chapter and section with hyphens. Because all of the numbers are in one place, it is very easy to look for the statute and its sub-sections in case-law. For example, if we wanted to find cases in Minnesota discussing pre-meditated murder that causes the death of a peace officer or guard [sub-section (a)(4)], all we need to do is this:

609.185(a)(4)

 Statute Interpretation 3-2a

Advanced Tip: Sometimes a case discussing a statute will refer to multiple sub-sections simultaneously. For example, “the defendant was tried for premeditated murder under sections 609.184(a)(3) and (4).” In this case, our search will miss this language because (a) doesn’t immediately precede (4). To build a search that will cover this, we will use the (+) and (s) connectors. These connectors will look for the sub-sections within the same sentence as the statute regardless of how far apart they are like so:

609.185 +s a +s 4

B) Separated Number Statutes

The federal government and many other states separate their title or chapter numbers from the statute sections. One common mistake researchers make when searching for these statutes is that they just put the statute in quotes, like this:

“42 USCA 1983”

The problem is that you will miss any of the following iterations of that statute:

  • With periods: 42 U.S.C.A. 1983
  • Unnecessarily floral descriptions: Title 42 of the United States Code section 1983
  • Courts that just quote the United States Code as opposed to the United States Code Annotated: 42 USC 1983
  • Unnecessary Spaces: 42 U S C A 1983

And any number of combinations of these. The best way to search for a statute like this is to count the maximum number of possible words in between the Title and the Statute Number and then add one. For example with 42 USCA 1983, we could say, 42 United States Code Annotated Section 1983. As there are 5 potential words in between 42 and 1983, we will build a search that looks for these two numbers within 6 words of each other. We will continue using the (+) connector, because it will increase the relevancy of our results. The vast majority of the time, the statute’s Title will come before the statute’s section.

42 +6 1983

 Statute Interpretation 3-2b

Tip: Particularly with Federal statutes, courts often cite the full statute with title once, and then refer only to the section and sub-sections separately. For example a court may cite first to 31 USC 3343, and later, in the body of the case refer only to 3343(b). To capture a case like this, we will separate the sub-section from the full title like so:

(33 +6 3343) & 3343(b)

C) Code Statutes

Some states, such as New York, Texas and California are “code states”, where the laws are separated into individual topical codes. If the state re-uses its numbering scheme in each code, we will need to account for this in our search. For example if we want to look at the New York Alcohol & Beverage Code section 125, we will need to distinguish it from all of the other dozen New York codes that also have a section 125.

“AL BEV CON” “Alcoholic Beverage Control” +5 125

 Statute Interpretation 3-2c

Tip: Most Code States use the full title of a Code and an abbreviated version interchangeably. To be certain you are catching everything, you will need to know what the state’s abbreviated version of the code is so that you can put both into the search.

#4 Citing References

If all of those terms and connectors are making your head spin, there is a way to simplify the search using Citing References. By pulling up the statute directly and going to Citing References, we can use simplified searches because we know that the cases already cite to the statute. If we were looking at 31 USCA 3343, for example and wanted to find cases that cite to sub-section (b), all we would have to do is search for this:

3343(b)

Statute Interpretation 3-2d

 Statute Interpretation 3-2e

The Citing References are doing all of the heavy lifting for us, and adding the title, etc. will not be necessary!