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  • InsideTrack
  • November 01, 2023

    Legal Research 101: Municipal Law

    Municipal law research can be challenging. Law librarian Deborah Darin gives an overview for gathering relevant primary law sources and useful secondary sources for Wisconsin – and some resources for other states.

    Deborah Darin

    Milwaukee city hall

    Nov. 1, 2023 – When researching municipal law, understand that state statutes define municipalities’ power to govern.

    The first thing that may come to mind when researching Wisconsin municipal law is finding local ordinances. Also consider that county, city, town, and village ordinances are authorized by Wisconsin statutes and the Wisconsin Constitution. State law provides the foundational enabling law for how localities govern.

    Understanding municipal law implies knowing how Wisconsin state statutes apply to the governmental activities of Wisconsin cities, towns, and villages.

    Wis. Stat. chapter 66 (General Municipality Law) is a good place to start.

    Wis. Stat. section 66.0101 is the “home rule” statute that prescribes the parameters of municipal self-government, pursuant to the Wisconsin Constitution Article XI section 3.

    "Home rule" powers differ across states, and also within states, depending on the political subdivision (city, county, town, village) and the specific statutory enabling authority conferred.

    Research the state enabling laws in an annotated statutory code – in Westlaw, Lexis, or Fastcase. In Wisconsin, you could begin in its online, current, certified version of Wisconsin Statutes & Annotations, and find selected decisions about municipal home rule powers that have been tested in the courts.

    Significant Wisconsin Statutes

    Here are some significant Wisconsin statutes that may apply to a locality’s power to govern, depending on its size and governmental designation:

    The two municipal court statutes were substantially amended in 2010 to facilitate procedural uniformity among tribunals throughout the state. Former Judge James Gramling published an informative review of these changes in the August 2010 issue of Wisconsin Lawyer magazine.

    Other Wisconsin statutes govern issues that affect municipal law, including:

    • Wis. Stat. chapter 32 (eminent domain);

    • Wis. Stat. chapter 43 (libraries);

    • Wis. Stat. chapter 287 (water); and

    • Wis. Stat. chapter 5 (elections).

    Research the appropriate Wisconsin statutes, a municipality’s local ordinances, and its charter (if there is one) to determine how the local law governs an issue in a particular village, town, or city.

    Deborah Darin Deborah Darin is a lawyer, librarian, and adjunct professor at Marquette University Law School. She is a former practitioner and a past president of the Law Librarians Association of Wisconsin (LLAW), a chapter of the American Association of Law Libraries.

    Municipal law can be considered a form of administrative law. Like other states, Wisconsin counties and municipalities operate agency-like departments and commissions. Some local government agencies have policy rules and the authority to adjudicate. For example, Milwaukee has a municipal civil service commission for city employment disputes. Most towns and cities have local boards of review for property tax challenges. Check municipal websites for departments and commissions, which often have links to enabling statutes and ordinances that can get you started.

    Wis. Stat. chapter 227: Wisconsin’s Administrative Review and Procedure statute covers procedures for state agency hearings, evidentiary standards, scope of review, and other matters. The hearing procedures in this law are considered and modeled by municipal governments for some local procedures in adjudicative proceedings. If you are appearing at a city commission hearing, be sure to locate the written procedures that the municipality requires for the hearing. Connect with the city department that supports the commission or board adjudications.

    Resources for Specific Municipal Ordinances

    Free websites offer links to current municipal ordinances for most Wisconsin localities. Increasingly, local government entities post ordinances on their local government website.

    For an efficient start, check the Wisconsin State Law Library’s Wisconsin Ordinances and Codes website. If village, town, city, or county ordinances are online, this page will direct you to the updated version, either on the governmental website or another site that displays authentic material. The extensive list is arranged alphabetically.

    Currency dates usually are easy to find at the beginning of a municipal code of ordinances. Here are two examples:

    Some Wisconsin municipalities may alert you to contact the city clerk to ensure the online version is the most current code of ordinances. Sometimes it will be necessary to contact the local clerk when there is no online version of the ordinances. A print copy may need to be reviewed at that town hall or library.

    Larger municipalities in Wisconsin post their codes of ordinances online and also provide ways to track amendments to the ordinances. For example, Madison, Milwaukee, Racine, and West Allis have legislative information posted on Legistar where you can track municipal legislation from its introduction to passage.

    General Ordinance Resources

    • American Legal Publishing Code Library is an extensive, but not comprehensive, database for municipal codes in the U.S. Very few Wisconsin cities are included, but many Illinois cities and towns are available here, including the Chicago Municipal Code.

    • Library has extensive municipal code links for most states, including Wisconsin. Milwaukee County (but not the City of Milwaukee) ordinances and the City of Madison and Dane County are included in this database, as are many other local Wisconsin entities. You will find overlap with the Wisconsin State Law Library list, but it is still a good idea to check both if you are having trouble finding a municipal ordinance.

    • Municode list separated for only Wisconsin local ordinances ​is a useful site.

    Additional Resources: Books

    These additional resources can also boost your research:

    • The Wisconsin Public Records and Open Meetings Handbook from State Bar of Wisconsin PINNACLE® thoroughly explores Wisconsin’s laws on public records and open meetings.

    • Wisconsin Municipal Courts – a list of Wisconsin municipal court links from the Wisconsin State Law Library website.

    • Antieau on Local Government Law is available in print and on Lexis.

    • Matthews Municipal Ordinances is available in print and on Westlaw and has good drafting examples.

    • McQuillen’s Law of Municipal Corporations is an in-depth treatise available in print and on Westlaw.

    And for even more resources, see Emily Gellings’s article and list in InsideTrack, Aug. 3, 2022.

    Need Help? Have a Question?

    Ask a librarian for help! We are trained to assist patrons with finding and using the best resources for them and their unique legal research topics. Law librarians are available at these Wisconsin libraries:

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