Friday, June 4, 2010

All Law Is Local, Too

Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill famously declared “All politics is local,” meaning that even a national politician’s success was inextricably linked to his or her connection with local constituents and their concerns. The maxim is equally applicable to law—not only because of local constituents’ impact on their U.S. or state congresspersons’ votes, but also for the large amount of county, city, and other municipal legal materials which govern a good deal of daily life in America.

Since legal education tends to focus mostly on the federal system, law students generally don’t learn how to research local and municipal legal materials until they enter full-time law practice. But no need to wait—knowing how to navigate local ordinances now can help you answer such burning questions as “What time can I officially pull the plug on my neighbor’s heavy-metal music?” (in Durham, NC: after 11 p.m. on weekdays) to “Can I shoot the pesky squirrel that eats all my birdseed?” (sorry, not with “any gun, firearm or bow and arrow”; poisoning is likewise not an option) to “Is it OK to go jogging through the Durham city cemeteries?” (we’re not sure why you’d want to, but the answer is no).

While the Goodson Law Library maintains print copies of ordinances for selected local cities and towns (Durham, Raleigh, and Chapel Hill), it’s generally difficult to find printed copies of local ordinances outside of their immediate geographic area. Fortunately, most local governments also make their codes freely available online through the publisher’s website (it’s best to start at the municipality’s website and look for an official link to the ordinances).

Some of the sites which you’re likely to encounter include:
  • Municode Free Online Library includes some local codes from all 50 states (including many governments here in the Research Triangle), and offers searchable city/town/county ordinances as well as the option to search multiple codes. Single keywords or exact phrases seem to work best for searching this site.
  • American Legal Publishing Online Library includes codes from 38 states (local municipalities include Wake County and the town of Cary). As with Municode, there are options to search within a single code or across multiple codes.
  • Code Publishing Company includes 19 states, mostly concentrated in the western region of the U.S. Other publishers focused mostly west of the Mississippi include Quality Code Publishing and the Colorado Code Publishing Company.
What if you want information related to the ordinances, such as enforcement statistics or the local equivalent of legislative history? The "paper trail" related to city and county ordinances will vary greatly, but you may find records or minutes of council meetings or administrative hearings posted on the government’s web site. If there isn't anything readily posted online, a phone call to the appropriate government office may provide a lead to additional information.

Local newspapers are also an extremely valuable source for information about local government ordinances. Due to their focus on the geographic region, they’re almost certain to report on the passage of new ordinances (like the recent bans on tethering animals in various North Carolina counties), or the enforcement of ordinances (such as a city contractor being cited for violation of the livable wage requirement). The America's Newspapers database includes a number of local newspapers, in most cases dating back to the mid-1990s. Keep in mind that free city papers, like the Triangle’s Independent Weekly, are also great sources of information on local politics and news.

If these tips for local government research don’t get you what you need, please remember to Ask a Librarian.