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State & Local Legal Research: Municipal Law

Locating Municipal Codes

No one source covers all municipal codes.  If you already know the municipality you want, your best bet is simply to visit that city or town's website and search for the code there.

The following resources are helpful if you're looking to compile or compare a sampling of different codes.

  • American Legal Publishing Corporation: This page offers codes from 32 states. You can browse for a code in a given state, search all of the codes in a given state, or search all the codes available. 

  • Municode: This site allows you to browse for codes in all 50 states. There is no free option available to search all of the codes at once. 

  • The eCode360 Code Library has codes from 24 states.

  • Search Lexis Advance for municipal codes in each state, or search by practice area.

  • Although it does not contain municipal codes, WestlawNext has a compilation of municipal law resources in one place, with a useful collection of secondary sources to aid you in your research.

 

Check out the "Research Tips" section in the Massachusetts Municipal Law box to the right for recommendations on how to search within municipal codes.

Citing Ordinances

According to Bluebook Rule 12.9.2, ordinances are cited analogously to statutes.  Give the full name of the city, town or county, followed by the abbreviation of the state (see table T1).  Then, give the name of the code, the section and the year of the code.

Use small caps formatting for the geographic area and code name.

For example:  WORCESTER, MASS., REV. ORDINANCES ch. 1, § 1 (2008).

Selected Books from the Catalog

What is Municipal Law?

Municipal law is the law of cities, towns, counties and special districts.  

Some local governments are structured comparably to federal and state governments, with executives (mayors, county executives, town managers) and legislatures (city council, county legislature, board of selectmen) and administrative agencies to implement regulations. Other, smaller, municipalities may have different organizational frameworks.

What does municipal law consist of?

State statutory codes prescribe many of the powers and duties of local governments and provides for the publication of ordinances and bylaws.

Municipal charters, like constitutions, serve as the governing document for the municipality.  

Ordinances and bylaws are the laws issued by the municipality, and the rules pertinent to the municipality's operations and conduct of business. Just like a state or federal code is an organized compilation of state or federal laws, a municipal code is an organized compilation of municipal ordinances and bylaws.

Administrative regulations may also be promulgated for a municipality, and may be part of its code.

Where is municipal law located?

The clerk's office of each municipality maintains its local laws. Most municipalities also make their laws available online, via the city or town's website. Some commercial publishers also cover selected municipalities' laws (see examples under "Locating Municipal Codes" at left).  Note that the format and searchability of these sites vary widely.

Are 'historic" versions of municipal codes available online?

It depends on the municipality.  Some have a few recent years of superseded codes (which you may be researching if you want to see how a law looked at a particular point in time) on their websites and/or through a commercial database, but there's not necessarily any rhyme or reason as to how far back the coverage goes.  Your best bet is to contact the clerk's office.

Massachusetts Municipal Law

The Massachusetts Trial Court Law Libraries (MTCLL) system maintains a set of links to all of the Massachusetts ordinances and bylaws available online, arranged by city or town. 

RESEARCH TIPS

  • There is no single platform adopted by the cities and towns for making their ordinances and bylaws available online.  Some use commercial databases like Municode or eCode 360 to host their codes in a searchable platform, while others go low-tech by posting PDFs or Word documents of their codes. Here are some recommendations to follow:

    • Look first for a Table of Contents to see how the city or town categorizes and organizes its laws.  Zeroing in early on the area(s) relevant to your research saves you time. If there is an Index, that can be helpful too.

    • If you don't see what you want by scanning the Table of Contents, it may be that the relevant provisions are located in areas you might not have considered.  Assess your research question and brainstorm several keywords you can search with.  

    • If you are researching zoning laws, go and cross-reference the general laws as well.  Many of the key provisions of a law may be regulated or influenced by another part of the code.

    • For commercial databases:  

      • Look for a help guide to orient you to how the database works and what search syntax is used.  Some databases have an Advanced Search feature that allows for terms and connectors searching.

    • For PDFs or Word documents:  

      • Use "Control-F" to search for keywords throughout the document.  

  • Sometimes cities or towns publish their zoning code separately from the rest of the code.  If that is the case, MTCLL lists separate links for each.  

  • Since each city or town is responsible for what it makes available online, if you have concerns about the currency or completeness of any municipal code, you should contact the city or town clerk directly

  • Not finding what you're looking for in text of the municipal code?  You may have to expand your research.  For example: was there an executive order on the subject?  Has an executive agency issued a policy?  Have local news, community organizations or law firms been discussing or writing on the matter?

 

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES

General

Zoning

  • MCLE's Massachusetts Zoning Manual (available on Lexis and Westlaw) is useful for the practictioner, discussing variances, special permits, the procedure for changing a zoning ordinance or bylaw, and more.

     

  • Boston's zoning has various complexities.  MCLE's Boston Zoning: A Lawyer's Handbook (available on Lexis and Westlaw) gives an introduction, a code overview, explanation of special districts, and more.