The Dreaded Fifty-State-Survey just got Easier!

Terror fills the heart of a legal researcher when they hear “fifty-state survey.”

In his dissent in New State Ice. v. Liebmann, Justice Brandeis famously raised the notion of the states as laboratories of the law: “It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”

As the United States is a federal country, the fact that the laws of fifty states can vary is no surprise.  Legal researchers often wonder about the similarities and differences among the laws of the fifty states.

For example, Vermont law recognizes same sex marriage.  Which other states do?  And, which states recognize civil unions?   Good questions.  Simple questions to ask, but exacting to answer.

To answer this question, one might be tempted to simply toss a few words into the Google search box and hope for the best.  And, you might get lucky and find a web site that covers that topic; the National Conference of State Legislatures does this for same sex marriage.

But for topics in which all states do not use uniform language for the same concept, one must be thoughtful about search terms. An example of this would be “statute of limitations” or “limitations on actions.”   But what about the state prohibitions of shopping on Sunday? (Did you know these are called “blue laws?”)

Recognizing the similarities and differences of the laws is one thing, finding them is another.  It would not take too long sitting in the Library basement with the fifty state codes before you might ask “is there a better way?” “ Is there a shortcut?”

As a general rule, it helps to stand on the shoulders of those giants who walked the paths before you.  Part of your work in finding a fifty-state-survey might already have been completed by the authors of law journal articles. And this is where the Subject Compilations of State Laws   is a 25-volume annotated bibliography of fifty-state surveys, comes in.

Each volume is organized  the same way. First listing the controlled vocabulary of 251 topics by the main subject heading, and then entries for articles are alphabetically categorized within subject. For each entry, the authors provide an annotation which typically provides a brief statement of the sources the article provides.  Below are two typical entries for Same-Sex Marriage.

The authors have reviewed and complied law journal articles and book publications in which a fifty-state survey appear. The editor provides a brief annotation in which she describes the survey (e.g., civil union statutes exist in x states) and more importantly, points out whether the author has provided citations.

Most of the law reviews cited can be acquired via Hein Online, LEXIS-NEXIS or Westlaw. Others may be available through Google Scholar, or through the Legal Scholarship Network, more commonly known as SSRN. Occasionally, fifty-state-surveys may appear in court briefs or cases.

The Compilation does not contain citations to the state adoptions of uniform laws; these can be found in Uniform Laws Annotated .

It goes without saying that laws may have changed and legal researchers will need to update whatever published fifty-state-surveys they find. States that have had no law in the area may have passed statutes or courts may have ruled since the books publication.

The Compilation is also available on the Hein Online database .  The collection of these of the fifty-state-surveys is very intensive for the editors . The early volumes of this set, covering 1960-79, were edited by Lynn Foster and Carol Boast.  The 1979-1983 volumes were edited by Cheryl Nyberg and Carol Boast.  Since then, Cheryl Rae Nyberg has compiled them.   Legal researchers have much to be grateful for, because with these books, the dreaded fifty-state-survey just got easier.