This is the first in a series I'll run over the next few Mondays on legal research. I often get questions on how to do legal research and hope this will give writers an idea of where to start. Usually, the best advice is to contact an attorney directly...but this should help you start.
The law is a complicated area.
For starters there’s federal law. That consists of laws that Congress passes, the Constitution (that wonderful gift from the founding fathers), and decisions handed down by the Supreme Court. Then there are all the regulations created by federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and IRS to implement the many laws passed by Congress. And don’t forget things like Executive Orders implemented by the President.
The there’s state law. Not just in your state, but in every state. Fifty different versions of the law. And that’s broken into Common Law which has largely been adopted from English law dating back to the 1300 and 1400s. Think torts. It is quite established law that there are four elements to a tort: duty, breach, causation, and damages. All states and federal law recognize these elements. But each state then has different cases interpreting those elements. So Common Law is theoretically standardized, but must be examined in each state.
Then there’s all the statutory law. These are the laws that were created by the state houses (either bicameral or unicameral – again depending on the state).
Don’t forget County laws, City ordinances, planning commissions, zoning boards, and so many other forms of local government. It can get crazy.
So what’s a writer to do? How can a writer make sure they accurately reflect the law? Here are a couple quick tips that I will expand in future posts:
1) Talk to an attorney.
2) Do some basic research on-line.
3) Talk to an attorney.
4) Know the state you are writing in.
Nothing is more distracting to a reader than to find an error in your story that could have been easily fact-checked. My favorite all time example (which is actually from one of my favorite romantic-suspense authors): in this particular book, the heroine works for a state’s governor’s reelection campaign. Only problem, this state doesn’t allow a governor to run for reelection for a consecutive term. The author assumed this state was like 90% of the states. And it isn’t.
So let’s take that extra step to spot-check the research and get it right. Your readers will know if you don’t.