I suspect most people would not find the United States Code a riveting read. And I have to admit, I would not chose it for my bedtime reading; but in the course of my work, I am continually amazed at the wealth of legislative and historical information that can be found in the U.S. Code–print and online editions.
As we have previously discussed, in this blog, the United States Code is the subject organization of laws of a general and permanent nature. Although we have the print version of the U.S. Code in the Law Library Reading Room, I frequently begin my research by referring to the online version of the Code which is prepared by the House of Representatives Office of Law Revision Counsel.
As part of a reference inquiry, I was recently looking up information in the U.S. Code concerning monetary denominations. Title 31 of the U.S. Code is titled “Money and Finance” and chapter 51 is titled “Coins and Currency.” The first section of this chapter, 5101, provides the units of measurement for the dollar: the dime, the cent and the mill–which would be a “thousandth” of a dollar, if such a coin were produced. The parenthetical notation below this section links to Public Law 98-258, which Congress passed in 1982 making Title 31 a positive law. The Historical and Revision Notes for this section provide a reference to an earlier source of this section taken from the Revised Statutes of the United States, §3563. When I looked at R.S. §3563, I found a reference in the margin to a law from the year 1792. Looking up this reference, I found that it was An Act Establishing a Mint and Regulating the Coins of the United States. Section 20 of this law stated: “The money … of the United States shall be expressed in dollars or units, dismes [sic] or tenths, cents or hundredths, and milles [sic] or thousandths, a disme [sic] be a tenth part of a dollar, a cent the hundredth part, a mille [sic] the thousandth part of a dollar, and that all accounts in the public offices and all proceedings in the courts of the United States shall be kept and had in conformity to this regulation.”
Wow! The first few lines of this particular code section provide us with so much history! They take us first to the Revised Statutes of the United States, which represent Congress’s first attempt to codify all laws passed since 1789. Then section 3563, of the Revised Statutes, takes us back to the 1792 law which established the U.S. Mint as well as our coinage system. But if we return to the 31 USC 5101, we also find a reference just below the citation to the Revised Statutes to Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton’s 1791 Report on the Establishment of the Mint. The first question in his report was “What ought to be the nature of the money unit of the United States?” Hamilton notes that nothing could be more convenient and simple than using the decimal system for our coinage–a practice that had been established under the Continental Congress in 1786. The use of the decimal system in establishing values for our coinage also shows how forward thinking our founding fathers were. In fact, the English did not convert to the decimal system until 1971! The staff at the Office of Law Revision Counsel has also included citations to books and papers on this topic for someone wishing to do further research. The other parts of this section refer to various short titles in a number of amendments passed since Title 31 became positive law.
If we turn to the commercial versions of the U.S. Code, we will find the same historical and legislative information as it is printed in the U.S. Code–as well as, additional citations for the researcher. The United States Code Annotated (USCA) includes references to the American Law Reports; two law encyclopedias, Corpus Juris Secundum and American Jurisprudence 2d; and a law review article. There are no court cases associated with sections 5101 or 5102 (standard weight) of Title 31; however, section 5103, legal tender, provides citations and summaries to a number of cases associated with this law. The United States Code Service (USCS) includes references to the American Law Reports and the legal encyclopedia; American Jurisprudence 2d; and two 19th century U.S. Supreme Court cases on the matter of legal tender. For section 5103, USCS lists a number of cases; however, it uses different subject headings under which cases should be classed and also includes a reference to a research guide.
Dull stuff–perhaps for some: to the dedicated researcher, the U.S. Code can be one of the best stops to begin locating information on current law and historical references, as well as a variety of secondary resources that can be used to further one’s work.