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Philadelphia-Area Legal Services: Federal Law

Guide to institutions and organizations that provide free legal assistance to the general public.

Guide Contents

Use the tabs at the top of the page or the links below to navigate through this guide.

General Information

Federal law comes from statutes, regulations, and court opinions.  Much of this information is available for FREE online.  If you need assistance navigating the resources below, try contacting one of the law libraries under the general Legal Information tab; the librarians there may be able to help you.

Federal Statutes

Once a federal law is passed by Congress, it is assigned a law number and legal statutory citation (public laws only), and then published as a slip law

At the end of each session of Congress, the slip laws are compiled into the Statutes at Large.  The Statutes at Large is a chronological arrangement of the laws in order of enactment.  The laws published within the Statutes at Large are referred to as session laws. You can access the Statutes at Large passed since 1995 for FREE on the U.S. Government's FDsys website.

Every 6 years, public laws are incorporated into the United States Code, which is the codification of all of the laws arranged by subject. You can access a current version of the United States Code for FREE on Cornell University's Legal Information Institute's website.

Federal Regulations

Federal administrative law is codified in the Code of Federal Regulations.  It is an annual publication and it includes all of the general and permanent rules published in the Federal Register.  It is organized into 50 different topical titles, which are updated once per calendar year, on a staggered basis.  

The Federal Register is the official daily publication for all final and proposed rules and regulations, notices of Federal agencies, and executive orders and other Presidential documents.  It is published Monday-Friday, except on Federal holidays and is organized chronologically. 

You can access both the Code of Federal Regulations and the Federal Register for FREE online. 

Federal Courts & Court Opinions

Structure of the Federal Courts

Federal courts chart image

Federal Courts in Pennsylvania

In Pennsylvania, there are 3 federal district courts: Eastern (Philadelphia); Middle (Harrisburg & Scranton); and Western (Pittsburgh).  In addition, Pennsylvania falls under the jurisdiction of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which also covers Delaware, New Jersey, and the Virgin Islands.

Locating Federal Court Opinions

Federal Court documents, including court opinions, orders, motions, briefs, etc., are required to be filed electronically through PACER, which stands for "Public Access to Court Electronic Records."  PACER is an electronic database that contains case and docket information from federal appellate, district and bankruptcy courts.  Anyone can sign up for a PACER account for free, but there are certain nominal fees associated with accessing the information and/or documents.

U.S. Supreme Court opinions are available for FREE from several sources:

You can search for decisions from all federal courts for FREE online using Google Scholar.