California Legal Research

Use this as a guide to researching California law using any of these three tools: Legal encyclopedias/treatises, Annotated codes, or Case Digests.

The Annotated Code Approach

Use this approach when you're starting your search with just a legal concept OR when you already have a citation to a California statute. 

What are annotated codes?

Annotated codes are state or federal compilations of statutes. In addition to the actual text of the statute, you'll find summaries of judicial decisions, regulations, and attorney general opinions relating to that statute. You will also find citations to secondary sources that discuss your statute, including law review articles and practice guides. Two private companies publish the two sets of annotated codes available in Mabie's California Collection:

  • West's Annotated California Codes (published by West) (Call Number = KFC30.5 W4)
  • Deering's California Codes, Annotated (published by Lexis) (Call Number = KFC30.5 D4) 

Both sets follow the same topical arrangement of 27 titles subdivided by section. For example, you might find a citation that looks like this:

Cal. Evid. Code § 2450 (2005).

You would look for this section in a West's or Deering's volume with the words "Evidence Code" on the spine. Both of these sets are updated by paperback supplements or pocket parts, so be sure to check for updates!

How do I find relevant statutes about my topic?

First, brainstorm some likely search terms for your topic. Next, go to the subject index for the set that you're using. The subject index for Deering's is a one-volume softbound book called the General Index. The subject index for West's is also called the General Index, but it has five volumes. You can find each set's General Index at the end of the hardcover code volumes.

You can use a third index, LARMAC Consolidated Index to the Constitution and Laws of California, (KFC40 L37) with either Deering's or West's annotated codes. LARMAC also lists statutorily defined terms under the heading "definitions" with references to the sections that contain a definition for each term.

Locate your topic in the subject index and review the topic and its subdivisions, noting relevant code sections. The subject index may also steer you towards court rules or to sections of the California Constitution. If you need some help deciphering the abbreviations used in the index, there is an abbreviations key at the front of the subject index volume. For example, an entry might appear like this:

CC § 1954.50

If you check the abbreviations key at the front of the volume, you'll find that the "CC" in the above citation stands for "Civil Code." 

Now that I've found a relevant code section, how do I find case law about that statute?

In West's annotated code sets, the text of the statute will come first, then directly underneath the statute's text, you will usually find sections entitled "Historical and Statutory Notes," "Cross References," "Law Review and Journal Commentaries," "Library References," and "Notes of Decisions." Not every statute has all of these sections because some statutes may not have ever been discussed in cases or law review articles. 

The "Historical and Statutory Notes" section is useful if you're researching the legislative history of a particular statute. The "Cross References" section is worth reviewing because it will list related statutes and regulations that address similar topics. The "Law Review and Journal Commentaries" section will furnish you with citations to law review articles that discuss your statute. "Library References" will usually list West Topics and Key Numbers that relate to your topic. Finally, the "Notes of Decisions" section will contain summaries of cases that discuss your statute as well as citations to those cases. Be sure to check the pocket part for the latest updates to the statute's text and these sections! 

What if I want to find statutes online?

Both Lexis and Westlaw have made annotated code sets available online:

Westlaw annotated statutes database:  CA-ST-ANN
Lexis annotated statutes file: CA-CODE 
How can I be sure that my statute hasn't been modified by the Legislature since the pocket part was published? Shouldn't I check my statute's currency electronically?

Most California legislation goes into effect on the January first that follows the 90-day period from the date of the statute's enactment. However, not every bill adheres to this schedule. For example, legislation that includes tax levies or appropriations for state expenses or urgency measures will go into effect immediately. 

That's why it's important to check your statute's currency using Westlaw's KeyCite feature or Lexis's Shepard's service. Both services will give you up-to-date information about the currency of your statute, and they will also list any cases that cite to your statute.

Lexis:  To shepardize a statute on Lexis, sign on to Lexis and choose the Shepard's tab. Enter your citation, then click "Check." When your results appear, review the history of the statute to determine if any recently-enacted legislation has modified your statute. Review the "Citing Decisions" to find cases that have discussed your statute. 

Westlaw:  To review a statute's currency on Westlaw, sign on to Westlaw, then choose "KeyCite" from the menu at the top of the screen. Enter your citation, then click "Go." Review the "History" section of your KeyCite results to determine whether there is any recently-enacted legislation that will change your statute's language. You can also review the "Proposed Legislation" section on KeyCite to ascertain whether there are any pending bills that propose to modify your statute. Review the "Citing References" section to find cases that have discussed your statute.

Subject Guide