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California Legal Research

California Legal Research: Introduction

California state flagThis guide discusses the California legal system, provides instruction on researching California law, and explains how Harvard Law School affiliates can access California legal materials.

California legal research is not too different from legal research in other states. However, there are some California-specific secondary sources, including treatises and practice guides, that are frequently used by practicing lawyers. These resources are discussed below.

To provide feedback on this guide, please contact its author, Research Librarian Jennifer Allison (jallison@law.harvard.edu).

Note: This guide provides information only, not legal advice. If you need an attorney in California, visit http://www.calbar.ca.gov/Public/Need-Legal-Help/Lawyer-Referral-Service.  To find a public law library in California, visit http://www.publiclawlibrary.org/law-libraries/.

California Legal Research at Harvard: Sources

The Harvard Law Library has California legal materials both in both print and electronic formats. 

In the Harvard Library catalog, Hollis, many materials related to California law have been assigned the Library of Congress subject heading "Law -- California" -- click the link to view these items in Hollis.

Note that several subscription databases, including Westlaw and Lexis, include a large amount of California legal materials.  The law library provides access to these databases for Harvard Law affiliates.  In addition, a public Westlaw terminal is available in the library for anyone with access to the library to use.  For more information about library access, visit the Access Services homepage.

California Government & Legal System

The Governor heads California's executive branch, which includes high-level state officials and the state's administrative agencies. Click here to view an executive branch organizational chart.

Like the federal government, California's legislative branch features a bi-cameral legislature: the Senate and the Assembly. An identical version of a bill must pass in both the Senate and the Assembly and be signed by the Governor to become law.

Both of the executive and legislative branch offices are located in the state capital, Sacramento.

In California's judicial branch, the trial-level court is called the Superior Court. It hears both civil and criminal cases. There are also two levels of appellate courts, just like the federal system: the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court.

Secondary Sources for California Legal Research

Legal researchers in California are lucky to have a large selection of state-specific secondary sources to select from as they start their legal research projects. These include the Witkin California treatises, California Jurisprudence (Cal Jur), Rutter Group California legal practice guides, and Matthew Bender California legal practice guides.

Witkin and Cal Jur are available to Harvard law students electronically through Westlaw and Lexis.  Rutter Group guides are available through Westlaw, and Matthew Bender materials are available through Lexis.

Witkin California Treatises

The Witkin treatises are a comprehensive research resource for California law. They are among the most heavily used secondary sources by practicing lawyers in the state. Each treatise is organized like an encyclopedia, and features multi-paragraph explanations of legal principles grouped by subject. 

Harvard Law students can access Witkin treatises electronically through Lexis and Westlaw. This section discusses how to access and use them in Westlaw.

Note: The Witkin Legal Institute is dedicated to "advancing the understanding of California law[.]"  The Institute's website provides information about Witkin publications, current developments in California law, effective legal research, and more.  

Witkin Treatises in Westlaw

To access Witkin treatises in WestlawNext, type Witkin in the search box on the home screen and select from the drop-down menu.

Using the Witkin Summary of California Law for Research

The most frequently-used of the Witkin treatises is the Witkin Summary of California Law. It provides general information on most California law topics.

Materials in Witkin treatises are heavily annotated, and these annotations are hyperlinked in Westlaw. Sources cited include California primary law (cases and statutes) and California and U.S. secondary sources (Rutter Group Practice Guides and other practice-oriented materials, ALR, legal encyclopedias, law review articles, restatements, jury instructions, etc.).

California Jurisprudence (Cal Jur)

California Jurisprudence (Cal Jur) is a multi-volume legal encyclopedia focusing on California law. It is currently in its third edition (Cal Jur 3d). Harvard Law affiliates can access Cal Jur electronically through Westlaw and Lexis.

Cal Jur in Westlaw

In the search box on the WestlawNext home screen, start to type California Jurisprudence, then select it from the drop-down menu that appears.

The Cal Jur table of contents will be displayed. From there, you can browse articles by subject, or search.

Cal Jur articles are great for learning about the law and finding relevant primary and other secondary sources. A Cal Jur article provides a short annotated summary of the law.  In the Westlaw version of Cal Jur, articles include key numbers; click them to create custom digests of California state and federal cases.  Footnotes include citations to relevant American Law Reports annotations and California case law.

For references to related research materials, including primary authority, ALR annotations, legal encyclopedias, and model codes and restatements, click the References link at the top of the article.

An example of a Cal Jur article in Westlaw is shown below.

Rutter Group California Practice Guides

Rutter Group California Practice GuidesPracticing lawyers in California rely on the Rutter Group California Practice Guides. They are written by and for practicing attorneys, and offer short explanations of California legal principles. Many Rutter Group guides include include sample legal forms.

Civil Procedure Before Trial (shown in its print format at right) is a popular resource for litigation attorneys who appear in California courts. It covers pre-trial procedural issues, including jurisdiction, discovery, and filing motions.

The Harvard Law Library has a few of the Rutter Group California Practice Guides in print. However, Harvard Law students can best access them through Westlaw. 

To access them, type Rutter in the search box on the Westlaw home page. Then click Rutter Group Practice Guides & Other Publications in the drop-down menu that is displayed. 

Westlaw will display a list of available Rutter Group guides (shown below), under the heading Secondary Sources > Rutter Group.  You can browse them, search them individually, or search them as a group from this screen.

Each Rutter Group guide is written in an outline format. The guide provides practical guidance, as well as citations to statutes and case law that are useful for drafting motions and crafting arguments in practice.

Matthew Bender California Practice Materials on Lexis

A popular California secondary source on Lexis are the Matthew Bender practice guides. These are similar to Rutter Group guides.  

Access in Lexis as follows:

  1. Click the Browse link at the top of the screen.
  2. In the Sources menu, click Jurisdiction, and then click California.
  3. On the results screen, scroll down to the bottom limiter menu on the left side, Publisher. Select Matthew Bender & Company.

One of the Matthew Bender publications that is especially popular is California Points and Authorities, which "provide for the attorney the applicable decisions and citations required for motions and procedures at the trial level, and, in so doing, to supply the basic material for the preparation of appellate briefs."

Nolo Guides for Non-Lawyers

Picture of the cover of the Nolo California Tenants' Rights guideNolo is a legal publisher that specializes in plain-English legal publications for non-lawyers.  If you are not a lawyer and wish to educate yourself about California law, an excellent resource is Nolo Guides: California Editions.  This collection covers topics as diverse as landlord-tenant law, business entity formation, estate planning, and more.

If you need a lawyer, the Nolo website has a lawyer directory (https://www.nolo.com/lawyers), organized by subject.

Nolo also has a large library of free articles about the law available through its website.  Visit https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia to browse them.

To view a list of Nolo publications held by the Harvard libraries, click the link below to run a search in the HOLLIS catalog:

HOLLIS search: Publisher = "Nolo"

California Materials on Bloomberg Law

To view California primary sources on Bloomberg Law, including statutes and regulations, click State Resources in the Research Tools menu on the homepage.  Then click California in the U.S. map.

Bloomberg Law also features a number of California legal secondary sources published by James Publishing.  To search or browse them, on the Bloomberg Law homepage, click Select Sources next to the main search box at the top of the screen.  Click Select Sources by U.S. Jurisdiction, then click each of the corresponding triangles next to each of the following, in this order: State Law -- California -- Cal. Secondary Sources -- James Publishing.  You can select sources to search, or browse the table of contents of a particular source.

Creating Statutory Law in California

In California, new statutes are either created by state government through the legislative process, or by the state's citizens through the initiative process.

Lawmaking by the Legislature

The legislative branch of California's government creates new law as follows:

  1. A bill is introduced in either of California legislature's houses, the Senate or the Assembly.
  2. An identical version of the bill is passed in both houses and sent to the governor for signature.
  3. The governor signs the bill.
  4. The bill is "chaptered" by the Secretary of State and becomes an enacted statute.
  5. The statute is codified in the appropriate section(s) of the California code.

 

Lawmaking by the Voters

Voter lawmaking in California takes place through the passage of ballot measures. There are two type of ballot measures: the referendum and the initiative.

California voters have the right to try to have enacted statutes amended or rejected through the state's voter referendum process. Certain requirements must be met, such as getting enough voter signatures to have a referendum placed on the ballot.

California voters can also create law through California's ballot initiative process. This process allows the legislature and individual citizens to create perspective laws and put them on the ballot. These initiatives are also called propositions because they are proposed to the voters. 

Several California ballot initiatives are well-known. Proposition 13, which passed in 1978, affected how property values are calculated when assessing property tax payments. The California Board of Equalization discusses the history and effect of Proposition 13 in its California Property Tax Overview.

In 2008, California voters approved Proposition 8, which amended the California Constitution to state that marriage is only lawful between a man and a woman. The passage of this proposition has been extensively litigated since then. For more information about Proposition 8, see the California Judiciary's Proposition 8 information page.

 

California Ballot Measures Database

The UC Hastings College of Law Library in San Francisco has a searchable database of California ballot initiatives - coverage is from 1911. It is available at http://library.uchastings.edu/research/ballots/index.php.

 

Image: 7-how-7, "I Voted" (Creative Commons license, https://www.flickr.com/photos/7-how-7/61362556

California Legislature's LEGINFO Website

An excellent (and free) resources for researching California bills and enacted statutes is the California Legislature's legislative information website, LEGINFO.

Bills

This site currently has two versions of its bill information database.

Old Version:
http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/bilinfo.html

This site has more expansive date coverage than the new version: the 1993/94 legislative session to the present. Information provided includes status, history, bill text, analyses, and voting tallies.

New Version:
http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billSearchClient.xhtml

Coverage is from the 1999/2000 legislative session to the present. This site features more advanced searching options, and displays the information as an interactive screen with tabs, making it much easier to navigate.

Codes

The entire body of California statutory law is divided by topic into 29 sections, each of which is called a code.

Access to these codes is available for free through LEGINFO's Codes Page; however, the codes on this site are not updated as frequently as the codes offered through commercial databases like Lexis or Westlaw.

California Legislative Research in Subscription Databases

California statutory materials in Westlaw and Lexis include annotated versions of the California codes.

This means that, in those subscription databases, each code section includes the statutory language, historical information about enactment and amendments, and references to primary and secondary sources that discuss and explain the legal interpretation of the statutory language. Citators are also available (Keycite in Westlaw and Shepards in Lexis), which allow the researcher to view cases and secondary sources that cited a statute.

Because of these features, subscription databases are much more helpful for in-depth California statutory research than the free online database.

On Westlaw's California Statutes & Court Rules page, you can browse to a code or search all of the statutes in force. If you have a citation to a particular statute, use the California Statutes Find Template (first link under the Tools & Resources menu on the right side of the screen) to navigate directly to it.

In Lexis, California statutes are in "Deering's California Codes Annotated." Browse to Lexis Advance's entire collection of California statutory materials as follows:

  1. On the Lexis Advance home page, click Browse (at the top of the screen).
  2. In the Sources menu, select By Jurisdiction, and then California.
  3. On the results screen, click Statutes and Legislation in the Category limiter menu (left side of the screen).

Note: Because the annotations are produced by the publishing company and not the state legislature, West and Deering's may cite different articles and cases for the same code section.  Therefore, you should review both versions when researching California statutory law.

Historical and Superseded California Statutes and Codes

HeinOnline has a large collection of digitized historical California statutory materials, dating from the 1850s.  It can be an excellent source for historical statutory research.

To view the collection, select State Statutes: A Historical Archive from the HeinOnline Libraries list, and then click the plus-sign next to California.

 

The Hathi Trust Digital Library has recently digitized historical California Legislative Publications. The collection includes the following:

  • Senate and Assembly Bills (1911-1988)
  • Statutes and Journals (1849-2009)
  • Final Calendars (1899 - 2011)

This library is publicly available at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/mb?a=listis&c=1808948120.

The HLS library has superseded volumes of West's Annotated California Codes in microfiche.

California Legislative History Research

It is beyond the scope of this guide to provide extensive instructions for researching California legislative history. This process can be time- and labor-intensive, as well as frustrating, especially for older statutes.

Below are links to California legislative history research guides. It is recommended that you review one (or more) of them before starting your research.

If you are affiliated with Harvard Law and need help with a California legislative history research project, please contact the Law Library's Research Services Department.

Researching California Administrative Law

The UCLA Law Library has an excellent California Administrative Law Research Guide. For comprehensive information about researching California regulations and administrative agency decisions, please refer to that resource.

The California state government's Office of Administrative Law (OAL) website include information about the rulemaking process, as well as the California Code of Regulations (CCR) and the California Regulatory Notice Register. 

California Case Law

California has a three-tiered state court system:

  • California Supreme Court
  • California Court of Appeal
  • California Superior Court

California case law research often focuses on appellate cases. These are reported in West's Pacific Reporter, as well as the following state reporters:

  • California Reports (abbreviated Cal.) for Supreme Court cases
  • California Reporter (abbreviated Cal. Rptr.) for Supreme Court and Court of Appeal cases
  • California Appellate Reports (abbreviated Cal. App.) for Court of Appeal cases

California Court of Appeal and Supreme Court opinions are available to Harvard law students through subscription legal databases (Lexis and Westlaw).

In addition, the California judiciary has a free online database of these opinions, http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions.htm. Note there is no option to Shepardize cases through this database.

Unpublished Opinions from California State Courts

Many California Court of Appeal cases, for various reasons, cannot be cited.  This includes cases that were never certified for publication, and those that have been "de-published" because the state's Supreme Court has agreed to hear them on appeal.

In the subscription databases, these cases will be marked by a red stop sign (Lexis - see example below) or a red flag (Westlaw).

Although unpublished and de-published cases are not to be cited, they can still be useful for research because they provide citations to primary and secondary sources related to particular legal issues.

Historical California Case Law Reporters

HeinOnline's library of historical state case law reporters includes a number of sources for California case law.  To access it from the HeinOnline homepage, click State Reports: A Historical Archive > State Reports.  Then click California in the map.

Caselaw Access Project (http://case.law)

Through its Caselaw Access Project (CAP), the Harvard Law School Library Innovation Lab (LIL) has digitized all U.S. federal and state case law published through 2018 -- roughly 40 million pages of court decisions.  CAP includes the text of more than 140,000 California state court opinions.

This collection was launched publicly in October 2018 and is available online through https://case.law/.  The data is accessible through an open-source API and as bulk-data downloads.  

For more information about CAP, email info@case.law.

California Dockets and Court Documents

Note that, in addition to the sources listed below, the court's website may also provide access to documents and other materials related to cases heard in that court.

Westlaw has libraries of California trial court orders, trial court documents, and appellate briefs. Links to these libraries are accessible on Westlaw's California page - on the Westlaw homepage, click State Materials, then click California.

BloombergLaw also has a collection of dockets and litigation materials for California courts. On the BloombergLaw homepage, click the Litigation & Dockets tab, then click Search Dockets.  On the Dockets search page, click the Browse button next to Courts, and then select the option for California courts under the State Courts menu.  Then click Hide.  This will allow you to search California dockets only (shown below).

 

The law library subscribes to the LLMC database, which also includes an extensive collection of (primarily older) California Supreme Court records and briefs.  These are in searchable PDF format. From the LLMC home page, click the green Go button in the Browse Collections box in the middle of the screen.  Navigate to the records and briefs collection as follows:

U.S. States and Territories > California > California Judicial (by date) > California Records and Briefs.

From here, you can click the title of the database to browse, or click the Search link to search.

California State Court Rules

Judge's gavelThe California Rules of Court are created and maintained by the California Judicial Council. These rules cover civil, criminal, family, juvenile, probate, and appellate proceedings.

California litigators may also be required to comply with the local rules of the courts in which they appear.

  • This online directory of local court rules, organized by county, can help you find the current rules for a particular Superior (trial-level) Court.
  • For local rules for the California Courts of Appeal, click the name of the court on this site, and then use the links on the left side of the page.
  • For the California Supreme Court, see the court's Practices and Procedures page.

California Civil Jury Instructions

According to the Jury Instructions FAQ on the California judiciary's website, the Judicial Council of California's Civil Jury Instructions, which are known as CACI, are designated in the California rules of court as the official instructions for civil trials.

There is a second series of civil jury instructions, the California Civil Jury Instructions (known as BAJI), which are also used.

Civil jury instructions are available in the following locations:

Judicial Council of California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI)

  • Westlaw Path: State Law > California > All California Secondary Sources, then narrow by Publication Type (Jury Instructions)
  • Lexis Path: California > Find Jury Instructions
  • Web: http://www.courts.ca.gov/partners/311.htm

Civil Jury Instructions (BAJI)

  • Westlaw Path: State Law > California > All California Secondary Sources, then narrow by Publication Type (Jury Instructions)

California Criminal Jury Instructions

The Judicial Council of California's Criminal Jury Instructions, which are known as CALCRIM, are designated in the California rules of court as the official instructions for criminal trials. There is a second series of criminal jury instructions, the California Jury Instructions - Criminal (known as CALJIC), which are also used.

Criminal jury instructions are available in the following locations:

Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions (CALCRIM)

  • Westlaw Path: State Law > California > All California Secondary Sources, then narrow by Publication Type (Jury Instructions)
  • Lexis Path: California > Find Jury Instructions
  • Web: http://www.courts.ca.gov/partners/312.htm

Jury Instructions - Criminal (CALJIC)

  • Westlaw Path: State Law > California > All California Secondary Sources, then narrow by Publication Type (Jury Instructions)

California Forms on Westlaw

In Westlaw, type California Forms in the search box to view the California Form Finder page.

The California Form Finder page allows you to browse to or search for forms by topic and by publication. Two of these publications, the Rutter Group Civil Procedure Before Trial Forms, and West's California Code Forms, are discussed in more detail below.

Rutter Group Form Books

The Rutter Group publishes several form books that are accessible through Westlaw.  You will see them listed at the bottom of the California Form Finder screen, under the Forms by Publication heading.

When you navigate to a page in a Rutter Group form publication in Westlaw, you have several options:

  • You can view sample form language directly on the screen.
  • You can download a sample form as an editable .rtf file (click "Easy Edit" on the right side of the screen).
  • You can download a PDF of a sample completed form on pleading paper so that you can see what it should look like.

One of the more popular Rutter Group form books is Civil Procedure Before Trial--Forms. The table of contents of this publication is shown below. It is keyed to correspond directly with the Rutter Group California Practice Guide--Civil Procedure Before Trial.

 

West's California Code Forms

West's California Code Forms are organized in the same way as California's statutory codes, as shown below in WestlawNext.

Each form includes commentary, with citations to relevant statutes and cases, that explains how to complete the form.  The "Easy Edit" downloadable versions of the sample forms are also available here.​

California Forms on Lexis

To browse the selection of California legal forms in LexisAdvance, do the following:

  1. Click the Browse Sources link at the top of the screen.
  2. Click the All link above the source list.
  3. Select California as the jurisdiction.
  4. Click the Forms link in the Content Type menu.

Westlaw's Practical Law Research Tool

The Practical Law feature in Westlaw provides practitioner-oriented content, including standard documents and clauses, checklists, current awareness sources, and more. California-specific materials are included.  Practical Law is a popular resource in many law firms, so law students who plan to practice in California should become familiar with it.

On the Westlaw homepage, click the View Practical Law button in the dark box directly beneath the search box.

Click Jurisdictions, then click California to browse the materials by practice area (Commercial Transactions, Corporate / M&A, Labor & Employment, Litigation, Real Estate, and Trusts & Estates). You can also browse by resource type.

Lexis Practice Advisor Research Tool

The Practice Advisor tool in LexisAdvance (sometimes called Lexis Practice Advisor or LPA) includes several resources for California law.  This tool is popular in law firms that subscribe to LexisAdvance, so law students planning to practice in California should become familiar with it.

Access: click the Product Switcher icon at the top left corner of the LexisAdvance homepage (it's a box with little boxes inside it).  Then, click Lexis Practice Advisor.  On the Practice Advisor home page, click Jurisdiction, then click California. Your screen will look like the picture below.

From here, you can browse by practice area or by content type, or run a search.

State Bar of California

The State Bar of California licenses attorneys to practice in the state.

Law students who wish to be admitted to the bar in California need to begin the admissions process while they are still in law school.

Information for applicants to the State Bar of California is available on the State Bar Admissions "New Lawyers" website.

Among other requirements, successful applicants must submit a satisfactory Moral Character Determination Application. They also much achieve passing scores on two exams: the MPRE and the California Bar Exam.

All active members of the State Bar of California are required to complete continuing legal education. The State Bar's Minimum Continuing Legal Education website explains how to fulfill this requirement. Continuing legal education credits can be completed through online and in-person educational activities.

Note: The California Bar Exam tests the applicant's knowledge of both general U.S. and California-specific legal topics. For more information about which subjects are tested, visit http://www.calbar.ca.gov/Admissions/Examinations/California-Bar-Examination/California-Bar-Examination-Scope.

California Continuing Education of the Bar (CEB)

California Continuing Education of the Bar (CEB) is a joint program between the University of California and the State Bar of California.  

In addition to offering Continuing Legal Education (CLE) materials for lawyers admitted to the State Bar of California, CEB also publishes legal practice materials in many areas.

The HLS Library's collection of CEB materials is generally limited to older print resources.  The HLS library does not subscribe to any of the CEB electronic resources (OnLAW, AccessLAW, or SmartJCForms).  However, HLS students who end up practicing in California might be expected to know about them.  

Daily Journal Publications

The Daily Journal Corporation's publications throughout the state of California include legal news and notices.  

The HLS library does not subscribe to the Daily Journal's web database; however, it does have some Daily Journal publications in print and microforms.

Additional Resources for California Legal Research

The Harvard Law Library has several books that discuss researching California law; those listed below are in the reference stacks in the fourth floor reading room. Links to librarian-created research guides for California law are also listed below.

Getting Help from a Research Librarian

For help, visit the HLSL Ask a Librarian website: http://asklib.law.harvard.edu.  

This site includes links to all of our research guides, contact information for the research librarians (phone, text, email, chat), and a schedule of our training classes.