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California Legal Research

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.

Note:  This guide provides information only.  Employees of the Harvard Law Library cannot provide you with legal advice or serve as your lawyer.  If you need an attorney in California, visit http://www.calbar.ca.gov/Public/Need-Legal-Help/Lawyer-Referral-Service.  If, as a non-attorney, you are handling your own case, the California Courts Self-Help Center (https://www.courts.ca.gov/selfhelp.htm) may be a useful resource. To find a public law library in California, visit http://www.publiclawlibrary.org/law-libraries/.  The website of The Prison Law Office (https://prisonlaw.com/), a nonprofit public interest law firm that provides free legal services to adult and juvenile defenders, has information about legal assistance for California inmates and their family members.

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.

Government and Legal System

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 a list of California's state government entities.

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

Using Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are a great place to begin your research.  To learn more about secondary sources and how to use them, visit the following guide:

Below are selected treatises and study guides on California law. To find more, use our catalog, HOLLIS.

Legislation

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.

 

Researching California Ballot Measures

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.

UC Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies maintains a database of California ballot measure guides at https://igs.berkeley.edu/library/election-guides/ballot-measures.  

 

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 following:

  • The statutory language
  • Historical information about enactment and amendments
    • In Westlaw, this information is listed under "Historical and Statutory Notes" on the History tab
    • In Lexis, this information is listed directly beneath the statutory text, under "Notes"
  • 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)

The HLS library has superseded volumes of West's Annotated California Codes in microfiche.

Finally, both the Lexis and Westlaw subscription databases have historical versions of California statutes:

  • In Lexis, go to the code section and, on the right side of the screen under Related Content, click Archived Code Versions.
  • In Westlaw, go to California > Statutes and Court Rules > California Statutes Annotated - Historical.

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.

Administrative Law

Tracking Regulations

California Code of Regulations

Administrative Decisions-General

Attorney General Opinions

Executive Orders

Case Law

California Court System and Information

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

You can find more information through the California Court System websites:

Court Information: Rules, Dockets, and More

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.

Jury Instructions

California Civil and Criminal Jury Instructions

In California, jury instructions are divided between civil and criminal instructions. 

There are two main civil jury instructions. The official set is from the Judicial Council, known as the California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI). The other is titled California Jury Instructions—Civil (BAJI), taken from its original name, "the Book of Approved Jury Instructions," but it is no longer officially approved. 

For criminal jury instructions, the official set is from the Judicial Council, known as the California Criminal Jury Instructions (CALCRIM). 

Jury Instructions can be found here:

Forms

California Legal Forms

In addition to Court Rules, the California Judicial Council has adopted forms for legal documents that are filed with the courts. 

These forms are mandatory in certain situations, so it is important to view the current version of the form online and check its requirements.

Forms are available for download, as free PDFs, from the form library on the California Courts website.  Selected forms are available in multiple languages.  You can browse the form database by category, form name, and form number.  Instructions for completing these forms are also available.  

Subscription databases provide access to legal forms for California as well. 

Practice Materials

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 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 the California Bar Website.

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 subscribes to CEB Pro for ABA Law Schools, an online database of materials related to legal practice in California.  This database includes secondary sources, practice guides, legal forms, lawyering skills programs, and more. 

Access to CEB Pro through HLS is available to the following groups:

  • Current HLS students
  • HLS alumna/-e for up to eighteen months after graduation
  • Current HLS faculty, librarians, and staff

To register for access, please contact the Research Services Department at the Law Library.

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.

Law360

Law360 is a subscription legal news service maintained by Lexis.  This database provides California legal news stories at https://www.law360.com/california.

Additional Resources

Additional Resources for California Legal Research

The Harvard Law Library has several books that discuss researching California law. Links to online research guides for California law are also listed below.

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