Find Law and Government

The law exists in many forms: constitutions, charters, statutes, ordinances, regulations, rules, administrative decisions, executive orders, and judicial decisions.  And, law exists in numerous jurisdictions, some of which may be overlapping: federal, state, county, city, special district and tribes.  This section provides access to that law. 

With this complexity, legal research can be daunting.  Fortunately, law libraries provide tremendous access to legal materials, as well as some great instruction on how do legal research effectively. 

This section also provides access to the various levels of government behind the law, and a means to look in on them.

Washington State Law

The Washington Constitution is the foundational legal document of Washington law.  The legislature enacts statutes pursuant to constitutional authority and subject to the Constitution.  These statutes are codified by the Office of the Code Reviser into the Revised Code of Washington.  Administrative agencies administer the law under rules adopted consistent with the grant of legislative authority and consistent with chapter 34.05 of the Revised Code of Washington.  These rules are codified in the Washington Administrative Code by the Code Reviser.  Notice of the proposed adoption of rules or amendments to rules are published periodically in the the Washington State Register also maintained by the Code Reviser.

Decisions of the appellate court of Washington are the common law of Washington.  These decision may determine the constitutionality of statutes, the legality of agency rules, the meaning of statutes and rules, and the correctness of application of the statutes and regulations in specific cases.  These decisions are an important part of the law of Washington.

The Resources below take you to these materials.

Many other legal resources available through law libraries and on the internet provide commentary or explanations of areas of law, the meaning or significance of cases, and advice on how to utilize the law.  The About the Law section of this site attempts to provide an overview of the areas of law covered.  These general discussions will not be comprehensive and are not intended to substitute for legal advice from a lawyer.  The Planning and Prevention section of this site attempts to show how understanding the law can help you plan and prevent legal problems. 

Washington State Government and Courts

Three branches of government are established in the state constitution.  The power to make law is reserved to the people through the initiative and referendum powers, but otherwise the legislative power is vested in the legislature.  Forty nine legislative districts, each of approximately equal population, are served by on senator and two representatives.  The legislature meets annually, for 105 days in the odd numbered years and 60 days in the even numbered years.

The executive power of the state is vested in the governor and seven other state-wide elected officials.  The lieutenant governor presides over the senate and serves in the governor's absence.  The secretary of state maintains the official records of the state, supervises elections and maintains the registrations of business entities.  The attorney general is responsible for the legal affairs of the state.  The state treasurer manages the funds of the state.  The state auditor monitor the use of public funds.  The commissioner of public lands is the steward of state lands, parks and forest trust lands. The insurance commissioner is tasked with regulating the business of insurance.

The judicial power is vested in the supreme court and the court of appeals.  The supreme court consists of nine justices sit in the Temple of Justice in Olympia.  They sit as a panel to hear cases, some filed directly with them, but most being appealed from a lower court.  The court of appeals is constituted in three divisions: Division I in Seattle, 10 judges; Division II in Tacoma, 7 judges; and Division III in Spokane, five judges.  Three judges sit on each case.  The right to appeal from a decision of a trial court is the right to appeal to the court of appeals in most cases.  The trial courts--superior, district and municipal--are discussed under Local Law and Government.

The state web site Access Washington is the portal to all state government.  However, the legislature, each of the state-wide elected officials, and each of the courts have individual web sites.  The Resources below link you to the portals for each branch.

The constitution may be found in the Resource list under State Law.

Local Law, Governments and Courts

Local governments and courts are provided for in the state constitution.  Article XI provides for county, city and town governments.  Article IV provides for local courts.

Counties pre-dated statehood.  Article XI of the state constitution governs the creation and modification of counties.  However, the legislature provides the governance structure and authority of counties by statute.  Title 36 RCW is the primary statutory authority for counties.

Cities and towns may be incorporated pursuant to Article XI of the state constitution. Their powers are also controlled by statute.  Title 35 RCW and Title 35A RCW are the primary statutory authority for cities and towns.

Special districts are creatures of statute and have the powers prescribed by the legislature.

The superior court is the trial court of general jurisdiction.  It is created in Article IV of the state constitution. Each county has a superior court.  The number of judges and other matters are prescribed by statute.  Title 2 RCW is the primary statutory authority relating to superior courts.  Procedural matters are governed by court rules adopted by the Supreme Court and by local court rule.

Two types of limited jurisdiction courts have been established pursuant to the state constitution as well.  District courts operate at the county level.  Muicipal courts operate at the city level. They are governed by Title 3 RCW and court rules.

Washington Tribal Law and Governments

Washington law is subject to the supremacy of the United States Constitution.  It is also subject to the supremacy of rights recognized in treaties between the United States government and Indian tribes.  Indian lands and tribal members are subject to the constitutions and legal codes adopted by their tribal governments.  Tribal courts have jurisdiction to enforce these constitutions and laws. 

Law Libraries

Law libraries maintain vast collection of legal material that are accessible to Washington residents. The Washington State Law Library and the county law libraries are provided for in statute in Chapter 27 RCW.  They are set up to serve the public as well as the court.  They maintain website access as well as physical access on site.  In addition each of the three law school in the state have significal law libraries.  These collections may have limitations on public access noted on their web sites.  In addition Cornell University Law School's Legal Information Institute maintain a vast on-line collection of materials. 

Legal research can be complicated.  Legal librarians can provide excellent assistance in your research.  In addition, the Gallagher Law Library at the University of Washington maintains an on-line guide to legal research that you may find useful.

United States Law

The Constitution is the supreme law of the land.  It is supplemented by the treaties entered into by the US government, both domestic and foreign.  Congress enacts law pursuant to the Constitution.  These laws are codified in the US Code (USC).  Federal agencies charged with carrying out these laws operate under rules.  Federal agency rules are codified in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).  The federal courts interpret and apply the constitution, statutes and regulations in the cases before them.  Their decision in these cases make up the common law.  Court rules govern these proceedings.  The Resources below provide access to each of these pieces of the federal law.

United States Agencies and Courts

The Constitution created three branches of government: the Executive, the Legislative and the Judicial.  The executive power is vested in the President and carried out by administrative agencies of the executive branch.  The legislative power is vested in the Senate and House of Representatives.  The judicial power is vested in the Supreme Court, the Courts of Appeal, the District Courts and a number of specialty courts.  The Resources below assist you in locating the web sites for these agencies, learning what they do or contacting them.

Constitutional issues such as separation of powers among the branches, executive privilege, judicial independence, checks and balances may be found in the Civics in Washington section.

On-line Coverage: TVW & CSPAN

Open government has been enhanced by camera coverage of meetings.  You can watch goverment in action, not only on television, but on the web.  You may be able to watch the meeting live or access the archives to catch up on one you missed.

TVW was created in 1993 to give Washington residents better access to legislative proceeding, the meetings of agencies, boards and commissions, and better coverage of politics in our Capitol.  In 1995 it added coverage of the Supreme Court proceedings.  In addition to live gavel-to-gavel coverage of meetings, TVW produces its own programs exploring state politics and offers significant resources for civics education.

CSPAN was created in 1979 to cover Congressional action on television.  It was the inspiration for TVW.  It offers tremendous coverage of federal government politics and issues, books and other programming.   You may watch the video or listen to a radio feed.  The archives are a great resource.

Local governments in some areas have also created cable access to their proceedings.  You might consult your local cable provider or your county or city to identify what cable TV or web access they provide.