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Understanding the Law


How Do You Find the Answer to Your Legal Problem?

You may find yourself with a legal problem that is not explained in this website. If this happens, you will have to do legal research to find an answer to your problem. To do legal research, you must know about:

  • The different types of law,
  • How legal information is organized, 
  • How you refer to (cite to) legal information,
  • The court system.

Legal information is found in two types of resources; primary sources, and secondary sources.

Primary sources are the different types of laws. Examples of primary sources are: statutes, regulations, ordinances and cases.

Secondary sources give you general information about the law. Examples of secondary sources are encyclopedias and books about specific topics (also known as treatises). Secondary sources may help you start your legal research. They may also suggest primary sources to answer your questions but usually cannot be used as the only answer to your question.

How is Legal Information Organized?

When you are doing legal research, it is helpful to know how the law is organized.

Law is organized by the government that made the law. The federal (United States) and each state’s government make laws. These laws can be different from each other. This website is designed for people who need help in New Jersey with legal problems. If you have a legal problem and need help in a different state, you should see

Law is divided between civil law and criminal law. Usually, when a civil law is not followed, a person can be sued for a money judgment, or told to do or not do something by a court or administrative agency. Usually, when a criminal law is not followed, a person may be punished by being sent to prison. Most laws are civil laws.

Different Laws Come From Different Government Agencies and Divisions (Parts)

There are different kinds of laws, from constitutions to local ordinances. Each of these kinds of laws is enacted (created) by a different federal, state or local government agency or division.

Constitutions. Constitutions list the different divisions of the government and explain what  kinds of laws each division may enact (create). Constitutions also explain the  legal rights of the Federal Government. Every state including New Jersey has its own constitution. 

Statutes. A statute is a law enacted by the legislature ( law making division of the government)  Both the Federal and state government have legislatures. The United States Senate and House of Representatives (The Congress) is the  Federal  legislature.  The New Jersey state legislature is made up of the State Assembly and Senate. The United States Congress makes laws by passing statutes. The Immigration and Naturalization Act is an example of a federal statute. Federal statutes are published in the United States Code. 

The New Jersey Legislature and other state legislatures also make law by passing statutes. The Anti-Eviction Act is an example of a New Jersey  statute.  New Jersey’s statutes are published in The  New Jersey Statutes Annotated.

Case Law. Courts make law by hearing and deciding cases. Cases may be about disputes between at least two people. Cases may also decide disputes between two companies or a company and a person. Another kind of case is when a court decides what a statute, or local ordinance (local law) means. Courts may also consider whether or not a statute or ordinance is constitutional (follows the constitution). When a higher court in a court system decides a case, the lower courts must follow that higher court’s decision. This is called stare decisis.

The Federal Court System. Cases heard in the federal court system in New Jersey are first heard in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey. Those cases may then be appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. The federal system divides the states into “Circuits” the Third Circuit is made up of New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. The cases may then be appealed to the United States Supreme Court. The United States Supreme Court is the highest court in the federal court system.

The State Court System. New Jersey courts and other state’s courts also make law by deciding cases. In New Jersey, the Superior Court is the first level of the trial court system. Decisions from the Superior Court may then be appealed to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court. Decisions from the Appellate Division of the Superior Court can be appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

Here is a chart of the New Jersey State Court System:



Federal Administrative Agencies and Regulations. Federal administrative agencies make laws by passing regulations. Regulations are the actual instructions for how statues are to be carried out. Many areas of law are controlled by regulations instead of statues. The laws on Social Security Disability are an example of federal regulations. Federal regulations are published in the Code of Federal Regulations.

New Jersey State Administrative Agencies and Regulations. New Jersey and other state’s administrative agencies also make laws by passing regulations. The law on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is an example of a New Jersey regulation. New Jersey’s regulations are published in the New Jersey Administrative Code.

Ordinances. Counties, towns, and cities make law by passing ordinances.  A “No Parking on the Street between the hours of 12:00 midnight and 6:00 am” law is an example of an ordinance.

What are Rules of Procedure?

Courts and administrative agencies make rules about how to handle your case and yourself when you appear before them. The law calls these rules “rule of procedure.” Finding out about procedure is very important when you are representing yourself. Rules of procedure tell you:

  • What you need to do,
  • How you need to do it, and
  • When you need to do it.

The federal courts, New Jersey courts and other state courts make their own rules of procedure. New Jersey courts publish their rules in the New Jersey Court Rules (See Rules governing the courts of the State of New Jersey (from New Jersey Judiciary)). The federal courts publish their rules in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure and the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure.

How to Refer to Laws In Your Written Papers (How to Cite to the law)

When you do legal research, you are looking for specific laws that help you understand your legal problem.  Each specific law has a citation that tells you where to find that law and how to tell someone else where to find that law.

Each type of law has a different format for citing. The formats below may be used for New Jersey and the federal government. If you need to cite a law from another state, you can find the format in Introduction to Basic Legal Citation (online ed. 2017).


  • U.S. CONST./Const. art. II sec. 5, cl. 2 =abbreviation for name of constitution, article number in Roman numerals, abbreviation for section, section number, clause number
  • N.J. Const. art. IV, sec. 7,  paragraph 2=abbreviation for name of constitution, article number in Roman numerals, abbreviation for section, section number, paragraph number]


  • N.J.S.A. 2A:10-1 =abbreviation for New Jersey Statutes Annotated [place where statutes are published], title/volume number, chapter number, and article/section number
  • 11 U.S.C. sec. 552 (a) =abbreviation for United States Code [place where statutes are published], title/volume number, abbreviation for section, section number and letter for subsection.


  • Goldberg v. Kelly, 397 U.S. 254 (1970) =name of plaintiff, abbreviation for versus, name of defendant, volume number case is located in, abbreviation for United States Supreme Court, first page of case, year case was decided.
  • Simms Parris v. Countrywide Financial Corp, 652 F.3d 355 (2011). =name of plaintiff, abbreviation for versus, name of defendant, volume number case is located in, abbreviation for series of books cases are organized in, first page of case, year case was decided).
  • Marini v. Ireland, 56 N.J. 130 (1970) =name of plaintiff, abbreviation for versus, name of defendant, volume number case is located in, abbreviation for New Jersey Supreme Court, first page of decision, year case was decided.


  • N.J.A.C. 11:21-10.1=abbreviation for New Jersey Administrative Code [place where regulations are published, title/volume number, chapter number, section number]
  • 24 C.F.R. sec. 5.510 = title/volume number, abbreviation for Code of Federal Regulations [place where regulations are published], abbreviation for section, section number


Ordinances can be cited in different ways.  Always include the place that created the ordinance [city/county and state].

Rules of Procedure

  • R. 3:10-7 [abbreviation for New Jersey Court Rules, the part number, the rule number]
  • F.R.C.P. 12(a) [abbreviation for Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the rule number, subsection number]