One of the most daunting and painful research projects asked of research assistants is the 50 state survey. In short, this requires you to find the law on a particular topic in all 50 states. This type of project often appears when doing research for professors because they like to point out that “x number of states have laws on y.” Then they need a footnote to go with it. Creating that footnote is your job as a research assistant.
Like all good research, it’s best to find work that’s already been done. There are a number of places to find 50 state surveys and I highly suggest you scour each of them before you try to put together a survey on your own.
Westlaw – Westlaw has a number of 50 state surveys on various topics (e.g. state lotteries, abortion, toxic torts, etc.). In Westlaw.com, you can go to the Directory and search for 50 state surveys or in WestlawNext you can search in the main search box. You can then search the 50 state survey database or browse the Table of Contents to see if there’s a survey you can use. Most of the surveys in Westlaw are fairly up to date, so it shouldn’t take long to update your research by KeyCiting the statutes. (Warning – 50 state surveys are available as part of our academic subscription, but outside of law school this is a very expensive search.)
Lexis – Lexis also has a number of surveys on various topics (e.g. gun control, identity theft, addiction treatment, etc.). To find them, visit the main legal research page on Lexis where you’ll find a link to “50 State Multi-Jurisdictional Surveys.” Like Westlaw, you can search through these databases or browse the Tables of Contents to find what you’re looking for.
Subject Compilations of State Laws (HeinOnline) – This resource is a bit different than what’s available on Westlaw and Lexis, but can often be more helpful because of it’s broad coverage. Compiled by a law librarian, this resource identifies other publications (articles, books, cases, etc.) that contain a 50 state survey on some topic. So, if I’ve been asked to do a 50 state survey on news reporter shield laws, I can search Subject Compilations of State Laws and I’ll learn that there are two articles by RonNell Andersen Jones that cite to the codes of 34 states that have this type of law.
National Conference of State Legislatures 50 State Surveys – Sometimes you can find 50 state survey information on the free web and this is one of those places. This is a good place to go to find emerging topics that have recently been addressed or are in the process of being addressed by state legislatures.
So, if you’re asked to do a 50 state survey by a professor, make sure you take a look at these sources first. If you can find something that fits, then most of your work will be updating. And that’s a whole lot better than compiling a survey on your own.