Published on September 21, 2020 by Ed Craig, Reference Librarian
Searching for laws pertaining to local municipalities and counties is not a type of legal research routinely performed by law students. It has been described as the “caboose” of legal research in the United States, with little more than a mere mention in law school research course work. However, area attorneys visit the Law Library on a regular basis to do this very kind of work. What resources are used? What is available? This article will provide a basic introduction to the resources commonly used for research of laws pertaining to local municipalities and counties passed by the legislature as well as ordinances created by the municipalities themselves.
There is no uniform structure to local governments in the U.S.; the same can be said for publication of local government laws and regulations. Whether they be city, county, or other local government entities, they are creatures of their state; they rely on state law for their existence and their powers are limited to what the state gives them, either through statute or the state constitution. In the case of Alabama, a constant criticism of the Alabama Constitution is that local officials have very limited authority to govern or raise tax money without prior permission from the Legislature. As a result, particularly in the case of Alabama, laws pertaining to a particular county or municipality may be found in amendments to the state constitution, a session law of the state legislature, or in ordinances created by the city or county government itself.
Finding Local Ordinances
Many towns and cities are providing access to their codes via the web. This method lends itself to easier updating, as well as providing widespread access to the citizenry. However, legal researchers must still be wary of out-of-date information regardless of the format; again, it pays to contact city hall to verify the timeliness of all sections relied upon. There are several database services that provide access to current city codes online, with www.municode.com being the dominant provider for Alabama municipalities (and some other states, as well). This web address, now owned by Lexis, provides free access to fairly current city codes for these Alabama cities and many more, in-state and out-of-state:
Bessemer (current as of Dec. 15, 2017)
Birmingham (current through July 6, 2020)
Center Point (current as of Sept. 29, 2017)
Homewood (current as of May 8, 2020)
Hoover (current as of July 9, 2020)
Huntsville (current as of July 29, 2020)
Irondale (current as of Dec. 23, 2019)
Mobile (current as of March 24, 2020)
Montgomery (current as of July 16, 2020)
Mountain Brook (current as of Aug. 30, 2018)
Pelham (current as of Feb. 25, 2020)
Pleasant Grove (current as of April 5, 2000)
Tuscaloosa (current as of Aug. 25, 2020)
Vestavia Hills (current as of Aug. 31, 2020)
Other database services providing city codes (but not currently for cities in Alabama) include:
If none of the web addresses listed provide a code of ordinances for the city you are concerned with, you should first try to find the city government’s homepage and see if there is a link to an online code there. If not, you should contact the city clerk’s office, the local law library (if there is one) or a local public library in that municipality.
Finding Alabama Session Laws and Constitutional Amendments Pertaining to Local Government
Slowly, but surely, state acts and constitutional amendments which address Alabama counties and municipalities are becoming more accessible to the legal researcher. Westlaw Edge version of the CODE OF ALABAMA, 1975, has listed local laws by county, alphabetically, in Title 45 through Mobile County. The Lexis+ version of the Code has Title 45 alphabetically listed by county through Marion County. Aside from the limitation of not currently containing the laws of the latter part of the counties in Title 45, it must also be understood that only local legislation passed after 1978 is included. As a result, the researcher must remember that looking beyond Title 45 is usually necessary to get a full picture of the law; the resource you must consult is the LOCAL LAWS INDEX. The online version of it is available at the Alabama Legislative Services Agency website and is current through the 2020 Regular Session.
This work is first divided up by county, and then subdivided within each county into three indices:
- The first index provides local acts applicable to a county either because it is specifically named in the act or because it fits a population description stated in the act’s text.
- The second index, “Local Laws Applying To Municipalities of [named county]”, provides a listing of local acts applicable to municipalities in that county either because they are specifically named in the act or because they fit a population description stated in the act’s text.
- The third index, “Constitutional Amendments,” lists such state amendments that apply to either the county as a whole or to cities within that county.
Finding Annotations for Local Laws and Ordinances
Unknown to many researchers, there is a digest service for ordinances. ORDINANCE LAW ANNOTATIONS: A COMPREHENSIVE DIGEST OF AMERICAN CASES THAT INTERPRET OR APPLY CITY AND COUNTY ORDINANCES (First Floor, Digest section) by Shepard’s/McGraw-Hill is such a resource. To use it to find case law covering a specific city’s ordinances, the researcher would go to the Table of Cases volumes at the end of the set (beginning with volume 6A) and look up the state, then the city (or county), in the alphabetized table. Once the needed city or county has been found, individual entries will provide a case citation as well as an abbreviated subject heading and section number referring to the location where it is digested. Hopefully, these subject headings will be sufficient for the researcher to discern which decisions address the ordinance of interest, if there are any. As always, be sure to check the pocket part for any updates.
Citators for local laws resulting from legislative act or constitutional amendment are also available. Because Alabama local laws are in the process of being codified in Title 45, be sure to check to see if there are citator references from Shepards (Lexis) or Keycite (Westlaw) which will further explain or update the status of your provision.
If you have any questions about performing research with local acts, please contact a reference librarian at Beeson Law Library.
Marc A. Levin, How to Find Local Law: A California Paradigm, 13 Legal Res. Services Q. 79. 79.
This service is also available on LEXIS+.