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POLS 200 Introduction to Law: Primary and Secondary Sources

This guide provides a practical overview to the legal resources at the Highline library and available over the web.

Seeing the Difference

The U.S. Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education 347 U.S. 483 (1954) was a landmark case in which the Court declared that state laws allowing for separate public schools for whites and blacks were unconstitutional.  The actual case is primary law.  The book Simple Justice : the History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality discusses the case and its historical context and is a secondary legal source.  The Gale Encyclopedia of American Law has an article on the case analyzing it, and is a secondary legal source

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."   Because this is straight from the actual Constitution, it is primary law.  The 2012 William and Mary Law Review article "The Fourth Amendment Rights of Children at Home: when Parental Authority Goes Too Far," is an analysis and discussion of one aspect of the Fourth Amendment.  This makes it a secondary legal source.

Primary and Secondary Legal Sources

The materials used for legal research are generally divided into two broad categories: primary sources and secondary sources.  Primary legal sources are the actual law in the form of constitutions, court cases, statutes, and administrative rules and regulations.  Secondary legal sources may restate the law, but they also discuss, analyze, describe, explain, or critique it as well.  Secondary sources are used to help locate primary sources of law, define legal words and phrases, or help in legal research.  In short, anything that is more than the actual law is considered a secondary source. 

Examples

Primary law consists of sources that state the actual law.  These sources include:

o  Constitution (either federal or state)
         [United States Constitution, Washington State Constitution]

Statutes (laws enacted by legislatures); municipal codes (enacted by local councils)
          [United States Code, Revised Code of Washington,
          King County Code, Seattle Municipal Code]

Cases (opinions handed down by courts)
        [United States and state appellate courts, including the
        U.S. Supreme Court  and WA State Supreme Court]

Rules and Regulations (established by administrative government agencies)
        [examples include U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,
        WA State Department of Social and Health Services)

Treaties
       [Geneva Convention,  North American Free Trade Agreement,
       Worldwide Chemical Weapons Convention)

 ____________________________________________

Secondary Law consists of sources that explain, criticize, discuss, or help locate primary law.  Examples of secondary legal sources include:

Legal dictionaries
       [Black’s Law Dictionary, Nolo’s Plain English Law Dictionary]

Legal encyclopedias and digests
        [Gale Encyclopedia of American Law, American Jurisprudence,
         Washington Digest
]


Law reviews and journals
       [Virginia Law Review, Seattle University Law Review, Yale Law Journal]

Legal treatises, nutshells, hornbooks, deskbooks
       [Criminal Law in a Nutshell, Principles of Employment Law,
       American Constitutional Law, Washington Civil Procedure Deskbook]

Manuals and guides on how to practice law
       [Washington Practice, Washington Lawyers Practice Manual]