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Federal Statutory Research

Researching Federal laws (Public Laws, U.S. Statutes at Large and the U.S. Code)

Public & Private Laws

Session laws are the generic name used for the legislation enacted during a session of a legislature (state or federal).  In the U.S. Congress, the House of Representatives and the Senate meet in two year periods. Each year within the two-year period is known as a session, and together both sessions in the two-year period are known as a Congress.  Both the House and the Senate propose and consider legislation in the form of bills and joint resolutions.  Proposed legislation that fails to be enacted in a Congress dies and must be reintroduced in the next Congress  in order to be reconsidered.

Each law enacted during a session of Congress is classified as either a "public law" or "private law."  Public laws affect the public generally, or individuals as a class.  Private laws are generally passed for the benefit of a specific individual or small group, or to satisfy a claim against the federal government.

Public Laws are referred to by the congress in which they were enacted and their sequential number. For example, in the citation: P.L. 106-5 or Pub L. No. 106-5, the "P.L." or "Pub. L." are an abbreviation for Public Law; the 106 refers to the Congress (in this case the 106th Congress) and the 5 identifies it as the fifth public law enacted by 106th Congress). Note: prior to 1957, federal session laws were referred to by an assigned chapter number rather than their public law number.

United States Statutes at Large: The Official Publication of Public & Private Laws, 

Public and Private Laws from each Congress are officially published by the federal government in a hard bound multi-volume set called the United States Statutes at Large (abbreviated as Stat.) . There is a considerable lag time  between the enactment of a federal law and its publication in the print volumes of U.S. Statutes at Large.

Slip Laws 

Prior to their publication in U.S. Statutes at Large, public laws are published individually as "slip laws". Slip laws are not widely distributed in print. However, a number of online and print sources are available for accessing recently enacted laws (see "Subscription Databases" and "Open Access Websites" below).

In print format, the West's United States Code Congressional & Administrative News (abbreviated USCCAN) publishes monthly pamphlets that contain the full-text of all public laws.  After each session of Congress the public laws are republished in permanent bound volumes of USCCAN.  Another print source of recently enacted public laws is the United State Code Service, Advance Series, a monthly pamphlet set published by LexisNexis.


Public Laws - Online Sources

Subscription Databases

Open Access Websites

Public Laws - Print Sources

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