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Civil Rights Handbook - Introduction


California and Federal Law

This handbook discusses both California and federal laws which protect your civil rights. California and federal law should be examined together to get a complete picture of the law on a particular topic.

Statutes and Cases

"The law" usually consists of a combination of statutes and cases. Statutes are laws passed by either Congress or the California State Legislature. Examples of citations to federal and state statutes are:

  • 42 U.S.C. § 3601 et seq.
  • Civil Code section 51.7.

Case law is created when disputes go to court and judges issue opinions which resolve these disputes. Examples of citations to federal and state cases are:

  • Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co. (1968) 392 U.S. 409.
  • Gay Law Students Assn. v. Pacific Tel. & Tel. Co. (1976) 24 Cal.3d 458.

The United States Supreme Court is the highest court in the country, and the California Supreme Court is the highest court in the state. Most cases cited in this handbook are cases which were decided by one of those two courts.

Opinions of the California Attorney General

There are occasional references in this handbook to opinions of the California Attorney General. Opinions are issued by the Attorney General's Office in response to questions by state legislators or other public officials or agencies. Opinions of the Attorney General are a prediction of how a court will likely decide a case. Courts are not bound by these opinions, but the opinions are given great deference. An example of a citation to an opinion of the Attorney General is:

  • 69 Ops.Cal.Atty.Gen. 80 (1986).

What Action Can Individuals Take?


People who believe that they have experienced discrimination or have been denied other rights may often be able to file a complaint with a responsible governmental agency. The agency will investigate the complaint. If an agency finds that violations of the law have occurred, it can sometimes impose various sanctions on the violator and award various remedies to the individual who filed the complaint.


People who believe they have been denied their rights may also be able to file a lawsuit in a court. It may be necessary to go through the agency ("administrative") complaint process first. Contact the responsible agency to find out when and if you can file a lawsuit. These state and federal agencies are listed under each of the chapters of this handbook. Although you may file a lawsuit by yourself without an attorney, you may prefer to talk with a legal organization or private attorney if you plan to do so.

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