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Federal Statutes: A Beginner’s Guide

This post was co-authored by Barbara Bavis and Robert Brammer.

One of the most frequent requests we receive from patrons at the reference desk at the Law Library Reading Room is for help in tracking down statutes passed by the United States Congress.  While at first glance, finding a statute may seem straightforward, there are several features–such as the statute’s citation (or lack thereof), and its age, among many others–that might give rise to confusion and difficulty.  In this Beginner’s Guide, we will try to de-mystify federal statutory research by explaining the statutory publication process and describing where each type of statutory publication can be found.

[West front, United States Capitol, Washington, D.C.], courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

[West front, United States Capitol, Washington, D.C.], courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

There are generally three steps to the federal statute publication process: (1) initial publication as a slip law; (2) collection by public law number into the United States Statutes at Large;[1] and (3) codification in the United States Code or its predecessors.  We will review each step below. Before delving into the publication process, however, a brief review of some statutory terminology may be helpful.  A researcher will generally be dealing with two forms of law–public law and private law.  Public law, which is the most common form of law passed by Congress, “affects society as a whole.”  Private law, on the other hand, only “affects an individual, family, or small group.”  Additionally, while public laws can, and typically do, ultimately end up being codified into the United States Code, private laws cannot, because the United States Code is a codification of only the “general and permanent laws of the United States.”

Slip Laws

Once a bill becomes a law, it is first published in a form that is called a “slip law” by the Office of the Federal Register (OFR) as a part of the Federal Register Publications System.  In this form, the law is published by itself in an unbound pamphlet.  While this seems like it would be a bare-bones presentation, slip laws can provide a surprising amount of information, including: (1) the bill number; (2) public or private law number; (3) the date of enactment; (4) editorial notes in the margin of the text that “giv[e] the citations to laws mentioned in the text…[as well as] United States Code classifications, enabling the reader immediately to determine where the statute will appear in the Code”; and (5) information about the legislative history of the bill, such as citations to the Congressional Record.

There are several sources for slip laws, including:

United States Statutes at Large

At the end of each session of Congress, the OFR prepares the United States Statutes at Large, which includes all of the public and private laws passed in the session, as well as “concurrent resolutions, reorganization plans, proposed and ratified amendments to the Constitution, and proclamations by the President.” The Statutes at Large is organized chronologically, based on the enactment date of each law.  Each Statutes at Large volume also contains a table of contents and a subject index (sometimes both a subject and individual/personal name index), in order to aid in the location of documents.

How a bill become[s] a law. Now a law, the former bill, reprinted in legal form, is incorporated in the statutes-at-large and filed in the State Department. E.D. Kuppinger, Assistant Chief of the Law Section of the Division of Research and Republication of the State Department is showing placing a law in its final resting place, courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

How a bill become[s] a law. Now a law, the former bill, reprinted in legal form, is incorporated in the statutes-at-large and filed in the State Department. E.D. Kuppinger, Assistant Chief of the Law Section of the Division of Research and Republication of the State Department is showing placing a law in its final resting place, courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

You can find the Statutes at Large for 1789 to1875 on our A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation site. Navigate to the homepage, and then choose the “Statutes at Large” link on the left-hand side. On the next page, you can choose to browse, view an alphabetical list of page headings, or “search this title through the collections search page.” On the search page, to ensure that you are performing a search across the Statutes at Large rather than the entire A Century of Lawmaking collection, be sure to choose “Statutes at Large” using the drop-down menu.

For public laws passed from 1875 to 1950, you can visit the Constitution Society’s United States Statutes at Large website. As a warning to those with slow internet speeds, keep in mind that the American Constitution Society has scanned full Statutes at Large volumes rather than separate public laws.  To find the public law you need, simply select a volume of interest, and wait a moment until a scan of the entire volume loads.

For volumes of the Statutes at Large from 1951 to the present, we suggest using the FDSys website. On this site, you can click on the PDF link on the right of each Statutes at Large volume entry to bring up an entire volume, or you can click on the small plus symbol to the left of each entry to browse the volume.  Note that clicking either the “Private Laws” or the “Public Laws” links for each volume will produce a list of these laws in chronological order, each law being available for separate download.

The United States Code and Its Predecessors

The next publication step is for all of the new laws to be integrated into the pre-existing body of law.  Currently, this compilation of all the “general and permanent laws” of the United States is the United States Code.[2]  The United States Code organizes statutes by subject, and each subject is assigned its own title. For example, Title 51 concerns National and Commercial Space Programs. Titles are then “subdivided into a combination of smaller units such as subtitles, chapters, subchapters, parts, subparts, and sections, not necessarily in that order.” The United States Code contains quite a few finding aids, including a subject index and several helpful tables, such as a Popular Name Table that shows where frequently-referenced laws are codified in the United States Code and a Statutes at Large Table that lists the public laws in chronological order and links them both to their Statutes at Large citation and to where they are codified in the United States Code.

The United States Code was originally published in 1926, and since 1934, its main volumes have been published every six years. Prior to the United States Code, all of the federal statutes in force from 1789 to 1873 were codified in a subject-based publication that has come to be colloquially known as the Revised Statutes of 1873-’74, or simply, the Revised Statutes of the United States.

Different versions of the United States Code can be found both online and in print.  The most popular of these options is highlighted below:

Online Sources

The Office of the Law Revision Counsel of the U.S. House of Representatives (OLRC) is the organization responsible for publishing the official version of the United States Code.  In 2011, the OLRC debuted a beta version of an online version of the United States Code, but the website has now completed beta testing and is available at http://uscode.house.gov. The OLRC site provides versions of the United States Code dating back to 1994.   The currency of the United States Code at the OLRC site can be checked by visiting its “Currency and Updating” page.

From its homepage, the OLRC site allows you access the United States Code in three ways: (1) searching by keyword or phrase; (2) going directly to a specific section by entering the Title and Section numbers in the “Jump to” boxes; and (3) browsing.  If you choose to enter a citation and click “Go,” note that you can use the drop-down menu at the top of the results screen to select an older edition of the United States Code. You can also access an older edition of the United States Code  from the browse screen.  To the right of “Browse the U.S. Code,” you will see a link that says “current.” If you click on it, you will retrieve a drop-down menu that allows you to choose older editions of the United States Code. The search engine on this site is sophisticated, and offers a “search tips” link to the right of the search box so that you might take full advantage of its capabilities.  To browse the United States Code, click on the “plus symbols” next to each Title in order to break down that Title into its subparts. Finally, you may also choose to view the entire title by clicking on the “view” link to the right of each title.

FDSys also provides access to the United States Code, particularly for the years 1994 to the present.  To browse the United States Code, first choose a year from the drop-down menu on the United States Code homepage. Next, click on the “plus symbols” next to each Title in order to break down that title into its subparts. To the right of the title, you will find links that allow you to download the entire title in various formats, including PDF.

You may also search the United States Code by using the Advanced Search. On the left, highlight “United States Code” and click “Add.” At the bottom of the screen, you can enter your keywords into the search box on the right.  If you would like to search only a particular field in the United States Code (for example, if you only wanted to search within United States Code section numbers), simply make a selection in the drop-down menu to the left of the search box. To narrow your search by date, use the drop-down menu at the top of the page.

The United States Code can also be found in several online subscription databases, such as HeinOnline, Lexis, and Westlaw.  Simply contact your local public law or academic law library to determine if you can access these sources on site.

Print Sources

In addition to the official print version of the United States Code published by the OLRC, commercial publishers also publish versions of the Code.  In fact, these versions can often be of great help to researchers, as they are annotated, meaning that they provide references to cases, regulations, and law review articles, among many other sources, related to each section of the Code.  Two of the most widely-used annotated versions of the Code are the United States Code Annotated and the United States Code Service.

Should you choose to use any version of the Code in print, be sure to check the back of the volume for a pocket part or the shelf for a supplementary soft-bound volume for updates.

For any further questions or comments about federal statutes, please contact the Law Library of Congress.

 


[1] Public laws are also collected into the United States Code Congressional and Administrative News (USCCAN).  This publication contains selected congressional committee documents, such as reports and hearings, as well.

[2] It is important to note that, unless otherwise stated in the source note, the United States Code is not “positive law.” In the case where a title has not been enacted into positive law, and there is a discrepancy between the language of the United States Code and the Statutes at Large, you should rely upon the Statutes at Large.  For an explanation of positive law and a discussion of which titles have been enacted into positive law, please visit the Office of the Law Revision Counsel of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Positive Law Codification website.

8 Comments

  1. Norma Duffy
    September 12, 2013 at 11:32 am

    This ought to be required reading for all Americans. Especially those conservative folk who think they know what the laws mean. Very good work Barbra and Robert.

    May I use this article in my Blog with citations to the original authors?

  2. Barbara Bavis
    September 12, 2013 at 2:39 pm

    Thank you, Norma, for taking the time to ask–you are more than welcome to use the articles found on this blog. We also thank you for including a citation to the original source.

  3. Mel Johnson
    September 13, 2013 at 8:26 am

    Yes, you’re doing good work here.Thank you. And I appreciate your support of the right of commenters to inject irrelevant political snarks too!

  4. Eric
    September 13, 2013 at 8:37 am

    Great review. Cornell also maintains wonderful unofficial resource: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text

  5. Victoria
    September 14, 2013 at 11:32 am

    Thank you so much for this article! I teach legal research to non-traditional adult students, and this is easily one of the best explanations I’ve read on working with Federal statutes. The only issue you haven’t addressed — and I’ve been unable to find anyone who has addressed it — is how a searcher knows when the search is successfully completed. Any ideas will be very gratefully welcomed!

  6. Barbara Bavis
    September 16, 2013 at 9:35 am

    Thank you for your kind words, Victoria! There are several legal research guides, created by law schools across the country, that touch on the issue of “when to stop” one’s legal research. Some of these guides are:

    * Legal Research – Stop Already!!, by George Mason University School of Law Librarians: http://www.law.gmu.edu/library/libcorner/2006_02_07
    * For Law Students: Know When to Stop, by Emory University School of Law Librarians: http://library.law.emory.edu/for-law-students/emory-law-subject-guides/research-strategy/when-to-stop/
    * Washington Legal Researcher’s Deskbook (particularly pages 35-36), by University of Washington School of Law Librarians: http://lib.law.washington.edu/dir/PAH/Books/wlrd3.pdf
    * Legal Research: A Process in Six Easy Steps, by St. Thomas University School of Law Librarians: http://www.stu.edu/Portals/Law/lawlib/Legal%20Research%20-%20A%20Process%20in%20Six%20Easy%20Steps.pdf

    I hope this is helpful to you!

  7. LJ Priestley
    January 19, 2014 at 9:03 pm

    Dear Barbara, As an Australian lawyer looking for original statutory materials in the UK the US and Australia I am finding online research into statutory material best organised in Australia (said without hubris but surprise). I have found your article very useful, but probably due to my own ineptitude have not managed to work out how I can find online the Revised Statutes of the US (ed1878).
    Could you help me on this please?
    I find it rather baffling that in order to look at the 1878 version of the US Judiciary Act 1789, I have to scour through the Revised Statutes where its disjecta membra appear.
    Kind and hopeful regards, Bill Priestley.

    PS In case my reason for wanting to find RS in its 1878 form intersects with some interest of your own, I mention that the principal draughtsman of the Australian Judiciary Act,1903 in large part used RS 1878 as his model. Having seen the hard copy in a nearby library not presently open I know that there were quite extensive case references for many of the sections, including 721 which had been section 34 in 1789 and 722 which was a cut down version of a section in an 1861 statute. . The draughtsman included those two sections in what became and remains our much amended Judiciary Act (still in one piece as an Act) and they are currently causing some mystification in the Australian context. I am hopeful of finding out whether the draughtsman made use of the side notes in bringing what actually was a very keen intelligence to bear on the model for his draft. The starting point for me today in hope of finishing today or tomorrow is to look at the same pages he looked at when he was doing his drafting, 1901 – 1903.
    My apologies if the foregoing is not of interest to you and indeed may have wasted your time. Bill Priestley

  8. Barbara Bavis
    January 27, 2014 at 4:57 pm

    Hi Bill! Thank you for your question, and for the information about Australian legal history. I would typically suggest that any question go through our Ask a Librarian service (at http://www.loc.gov/rr/askalib/ask-law.html?loclr=bloglaw), but you might be better suited using the Ask a Librarian service for the National Library of Australia (at http://www.nla.gov.au/askalibrarian) for questions about the location of U.S. legal resources, as they might know more about what items are available in Australia.

    With regard to the Revised Statutes of 1878, as explained in this National Archives page–http://www.archives.gov/research/alic/reference/admin-history/laws-and-treaties.html–it “formed part one of volume 18 of the Statutes at Large.” Part one of volume 18 of the Statutes at Large can be found on our A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation site (along with a helpful index), at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lwsllink.html?loclr=bloglaw. I hope this helps you in your research!

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