Federal Law

Paralegal Guide: Federal Law Resources

Federal law is sometimes considered the glue that holds the American legal system together. Providing a framework for lower, state laws within the context of the Constitution, American federal law is arguably the most important legal system in the U.S. In this non-lawyers’ guide to federal law resources, we explain some basic concepts of federal law, and point researchers and students to federal law-related web resources.

What Does Federal Law Cover?

Law in the United States is organized hierarchically. Local by-laws and regulations are subordinate to state laws, which in turn are by and large subordinate to federal law, which in turn is subordinate to the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution, while acting as “supreme law,” is not federal law and ultimately a sort of meta-law.

What federal law should cover and what should be left up to states to decide has been a point of contention among lawmakers since the birth of the republic. Different founding fathers had wildly different opinions about what the strength of the federal government should be, ranging from the strong-government republicanism of Alexander Hamilton to the radical Enlightenment liberalism of Thomas Paine. Two clauses of the Constitution, the Commerce Clause and the Elastic Clause, allow for some flexibility and allow for the expansion and contraction of federal powers, suggesting to many that the founding fathers agreed that different historical moments would call for differing degrees of federal strength. Others argue that the founding fathers had a clear vision of what the federal government should and should not do. Constitutional scholars, politicians, judges, working attorneys, and historians have wildly different perspectives on this debate. Many however– perhaps most– would argue that our job is not to perceive the Constitution as the founders would have perceived it, but to interpret it as a framework for later legal work.

At the beginning of the republic, only certain activities were carried out by the federal government. A nation of largely self-sustaining farmers with minimal communication between their remote steads made a complex federal legal system largely unnecessary and logistically impractical. Only those necessary federal functions, such as military action (although many founders opposed a standing military), the printing of money, interstate commerce, and diplomacy, were performed at a federal level.

Since the Civil War, as the nation has become larger, more complex in its social and capital structures, more urbanized, and more tightly connected by telecommunications, federal power has expanded to oversee such intricate, interstate operations as aviation systems and broadcast media. These have generally been agreed on by the majority of legal scholars as necessary provisions within the strictures of the Commerce Clause.

More controversially, the 20th Century saw an increasing of “living Constitution” jurisprudence. Advocates of this school of thought argue that our historical moment calls for the federal government to provide for social justice– what Lyndon Johnson called a “great society.” Protection against discrimination and a federal welfare system are some examples of Johnson-era reforms.

State power is still extremely important, and forms the bulk of criminal law and tort law. The Supreme Court has ruled that state laws maintain a degree of autonomy from federal control, and that state laws are not bound to federal interpretations, and furthermore, states are not obligated to follow federal interpretations of federal law. This state autonomy has been supported by factions on both sides of the political spectrum. Traditionally, political conservatives have liked it because it favors small government, while political liberals have liked it because it allows for the states to function as “laboratories of democracy,” where innovative new forms of governance can be tested.

Further Reading

We’ve included a wide variety of links below, ranging from peer-reviewed legal journals to strong opinions regarding federal law. We’ve split them up by category– those pertaining to law, the official sites of government bodies, academic journals, sites pertaining to the Constitution, and those regarding Supreme Court decisions.

–The Laws Themselves

–Government Bodies

The following links are three of the government agencies established as interstate commerce became more and more complex.

–Academic Journals

–The Constitution and Related Documents

–Supreme Court Decisions

  • Justia hosts an index of Supreme Court decisions.
  • Cornell University’s Supreme Court portal hosts the full text of decisions since 1990, as well as a number of landmark decisions before then.
  • FindLaw maintains a search tool to help the scholar search for decisions.
  • SCOTUS is the blog of the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • Discussion of landmark cases of the Supreme Court.