Researching Special Education Law Online
Mitchell L. Yell, Ph.D.
With the availability of online resources, today’s administrators and teachers can become more legally literate about special education laws, policies, and procedures. Moreover, they should be better able to identify legal issues and applicable laws or legal standards and apply relevant legal rules to solve legal dilemmas. Because many of the legal requirements involving the education of children and youth with disabilities originated in federal statutory laws, it is a good place to begin a search for special education-related legal information. Fortunately, most of these resources are readily available online.
Congress has the authority to make laws. The statutes passed or enacted by Congress are signed into law by the President. These laws are available in both print and online versions. Federal statutes can be found in the United States Code (USC), which is the official version of the law because it is published by the U.S. government. All federal statutes are organized by topic as a series of volumes in USC, which consists of 54 titles. All three of the leading federal statutes affecting students with disabilities, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504), and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), are published in specific titles of the USC. The IDEA can be found in Title 20 (Education), Section 504 can be found in Title 29 (Labor Statutes), and the ADA can be found in Title 42 (Public Health and Welfare).
Due to significant advances in the accessibility of online legal information, there are many online resources providing free access to the USC, which allow users to browse or search by a specific title, chapter, or section. The official website of USC can be found on the govinfo website: https://www.govinfo.gov/app/collection/USCODE. Additionally, the USC can be accessed online through a variety of nongovernmental websites, including Cornell’s Legal Information Institute (LII) (https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text) or FindLaw’s (https://codes.findlaw.com/us/) USC online sites.
The statutes passed by Congress tend to be broad and general in nature. Therefore, Congress delegates power to the appropriate administrative agencies to create specific regulations to implement the laws. These agencies, which are part of the executive branch of government, add specifics to the general content of the law and provide procedures by which the law can be enforced. Regulations have the force of law, thus a violation of a regulation is as serious as a violation of the law
Regulations are published in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). Like federal statutes, the CFR is available online. Two useful online resources for accessing the federal regulations relating to special education include: (a) Electronic Code of Federal Regulations (e-CFR), (https://www.ecfr.gov) is a currently updated version of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR); and (b) the U.S. Department of Education’s IDEA website detailing both the statute and regulations (https://sites.ed.gov/idea/statuteregulations/#regulations). Regulations, such as CFR, can be accessed online through a variety of nongovernmental websites, including Cornell’s Legal Information Institute (LII) (https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text) or FindLaw’s (https://codes.findlaw.com/us/) USC online sites.
A reference to a source of law is a citation. Legal citations are easy to read. The first number indicates the volume number where the statute or regulation is located; the next component of the citation is the abbreviation that refers to the book or series in which the material may be found (e.g., USC, CFR). The second number indicates the section number of the statute, with the symbol § standing for section. For the IDEA, the statute begins in 20 USC at section 1400 and ends at section 1482 and in the regulations, the section containing the IDEA regulations are section 300. The next parts of the citation to a statute are the subsections, which further helps locate the specific section of a law. For example, the citation for the definition of special education in the IDEA is 20 USC § 1401(29). The citation to the definition of special education in the regulations to the IDEA is 34 CFR § 300.39.
A citation to a case is also relatively easy to read. The first part of the citation is the name of the case. The name of the case is followed by the volume number and the reporter in which the case can be found (e.g., F. Supp for officially published district courts, F.3d for officially published circuit court cases, U.S. for officially published Supreme Court cases). The last part of a citation, which is in parenthesis, includes the name of the court and the year in which the ruling was issued. For example, the citation for Barnett v. Memphis City School System, 294 F. Supp.2d 924 (W.D. Tenn. 2003) can be found in volume 294 of the Federal Supplement, Second Series beginning on page 924. The case was heard at the federal district court in the Western Division of Tennessee in 2003. Cases from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the various circuits will have a citation as follows: Spring Branch Independent School District v. O.W., 961 F.3d 781 (5th Cir. 2020). The case can be found on volume 962 of the 3rd series of the Federal Reporter on page 781. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled on the case in 2020. A citation in the official reporter for the U.S. Supreme Court, the Supreme Court Reporter, will appear as Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley, 458U.S. 175 (1982).
Current opinions are accessible daily from official federal court websites. Every U.S. Court of Appeals has a website that quickly published rulings after they are issued. The official US courts website, https://www.uscourts.gov/, provides links to the U.S. Supreme Court and all U.S. Courts of Appeals and U.S. District Court websites. The official U.S. Supreme Court website, https://www.supremecourt.gov/, not only publishes opinions, but includes decisions from 1991 forward, transcripts of oral arguments, and briefs. In addition, the Oyez Project website provides digital audio recordings of oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court and links to the full-text versions of opinions dating back from 1973 forward. Another excellent website is the unofficial Supreme Court of the United States blog, known as SCOTUS blog (scotusblog.com). The table below lists web addresses for searching for federal court opinions and a few other useful court websites.
|Case Law Access Project (Harvard University) (Provides access to all U.S. official published case law)||https://case.law/|
|Cornell’s Legal Information Institute (LII) (Cornell Law School) (Provides primary legal materials, legal encyclopedia, and the Supreme Court Bulletin)||https://www.law.cornell.edu/|
|PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) (Note: there is a nominal fee associated with accessing legal case information)||https://www.pacer.gov/|
|Public Library of Law||https://www.fastcase.com/|
|U.S. Supreme Court||http://supremecourt.gov|
Secondary websites, including Google Scholar, FindLaw, and Justica. Many legal cases can be found online on the Google Scholar website (scholar.google.com), which includes both federal and state legal opinions. From the main Google Scholar search page, select the button for “Case law.” Type your case citation or case name in the search box and click the Search button. Keyword searches of the full text of case opinions may also be conducted from this screen. Searches may be limited to federal courts and/or to particular state courts. The United States courts website provides access to U.S. Supreme Court, U.S. Courts of Appeals and U.S. District Court websites.
Additionally, open-access websites, including Cornell’s Legal Information Institute (LII) and Google Scholar allow users to search federal and state legal cases individually or together. Beginning in 2001, the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) website (https://www.pacer.gov/findcase.html) became available allowing users to retrieve individual legal cases online from both federal appellate and district-level jurisdictions. Currently, there is a maximum charge of $3.00 for online access to any single court case document other than name searches, reports that are not case-specific, and transcripts of federal court proceedings.
State laws and regulations are generally available online from the websites of their states. Individual state statutes and regulations often organize their statutes based on subject (e.g., education). In many states, you can find specific websites that provide access to specific state statutes and regulations. For example, Cornell’s Legal Information Institute (LII) allows you to search education statutes by individual state (https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/table_education) or jurisdiction type (https://www.law.cornell.edu/states/listing).
The table below provides leading online resources of federal special education statutes, regulations, and administrative agency policy and guidance documents. Increasingly, there are a growing number of secondary online legal resources related to special education law and policy.
|Americans with Disability Act’s (ADA) Homepage||https://www.ada.gov/pubs/adastatute08.htm|
|Cornell Legal Information Institute (CII): State Law Resources By Jurisdiction||https://www.law.cornell.edu/states/listing|
|e-CFR (Electronic Code of Federal Regulations)||https://www.ecfr.gov|
|U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) policy letters and guidance to support the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)||https://sites.ed.gov/idea/policy-guidance/|
|U.S. Department of Education, IDEA Stature and Regulations||https://sites.ed.gov/idea/statuteregulations/|
|U.S. Department of Labor-Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973||https://www.dol.gov/oasam/regs/statutes/sec504.htm|
|U.S. House of Representatives, Office of the Law Revision Counsel||http://uscode.house.gov|
|50 State Survey of Special Education Laws and Regulations (Franklin County Law Library)||https://fclawlib.libguides.com/specialeducation/50statesurvey|
The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS), an office within the U.S. Department of Education includes the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) that addresses students with disabilities and the IDEA and the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) that addresses students with disabilities and Section 504. Both offices issue policy statements in the form of Dear Colleague Letters and Question and Answer FAQs. Although the policy statements are the opinions of officials in the offices, they do not have the force of either laws not regulations. Nonetheless, these policy statements are important and can be cited in court cases and due process hearings.
|U.S. Department of Education||https://www.ed.gov/|
|Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS)||https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/osers/index.html|
|Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP)||https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/osers/osep/index.html|
|Office of Civil Rights (OCR)||https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/index.html|
Another example of a secondary online resource for special education law and policy is blogs. Blogs are online discussions on a particular topic and involve informal dairy-style text entries, often referred to as posts. Blogs allow law professors, higher education personnel, and education professionals to report and comment on developments in special education law as they occur. There are blogs from state-level due process hearings to cases on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Online blog posts are usually displayed in chronological order. Table 2 lists some of the leading special education law and policy blogs, including the SPEDLAW blog (https://spedlawblog.com).
|Disability Scoop: Politics and Law Blog||http://www.disabilityscoop.com/politics/|
|Education Law Prof Blog||https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/education_law/|
|The Wrightslaw Law to Special Education Law and Advocacy||https://www.wrightslaw.com/blog/|