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Federal Statutory Research

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



Statutory Codes contain the general, permanent laws currently in force in a particular jurisdiction. Two important features that distinguish codes from session laws are:

Codes are arranged by topic so that related laws are grouped together, unlike session laws which are published in chronological, sequential order.

Codes incorporate new laws and amendments to existing laws (e.g., new or deleted language) into the text of the code.  This means that a current code contains the law as is currently in force in a jurisdiction, whereas session laws only give you a snapshot in time of when the law was originally passed. 

Through their topical arrangement of laws and their incorporation of amendments to existing laws, codes provide a practical method for locating the current law on a particular topic. The process of incorporating new session laws into an existing statutory compilation or code is referred to as codification. When a session law is codified, its original language is generally preserved intact. Parts of the session law may be separated out and integrated into different sections of the code to fit the topical arrangement scheme of the code. In addition, minor adjustments may be made to incorporate the language from the session law into the existing code in a coherent fashion.

There are a variety of topical arrangement schemes under which laws are organized in the codes of each jurisdiction. Most codes include a subject index and in some cases a popular name index or table to facilitate locating the law by subject or a popular name, e.g. "lemon law."

        Official Codes

Official codes are codes that are either published or sanctioned by the government. They generally contain the text of the law and brief editorial notes on the history of the statute. These notes, sometimes referred to as the "history line", contain citations to the session law that enacted the statute and any subsequent session laws that amended it. As a research tool official codes generally have two drawbacks when compared to commercially published annotated codes. First, when it comes to the print versions, there can be a considerable lag-time between the enactment of new legislation and its publication in the official code. Second, official codes provide few, if any editorial enhancements beyond the history line information, whereas commercially published annotated codes provide many valuable research related annotations.

The United States Code is the official version of the U.S. Code.  The U.S.C. is arranged in 54 titles. Each title contains laws in a broad subject area; for example, Title 18 of the U.S.C. covers crimes and criminal procedure. Each title is divided into chapters and each chapter is divided into sections. Laws in the U.S.C. are referred to by their title number first, then the abbreviation U.S.C., followed by the section number (e.g., 18 U.S.C. §2101). Each U.S.C. volume lists the title and section numbers it contains on its spine and cover. The print version of the U.S.C. is published by the Government Print Office every six years, and updated with annual supplements in the interim.  A subject index with a "Popular Name Index" accompanies the set.

        Annotated Codes

Annotated codes are privately published, often by West or LexisNexis. In some states, the annotated code is the official code. Annotated codes offer a number of advantages that make them more useful for research purposes:

  • Frequent Updates/Supplementation
    When compared to official, print codes published by the government, annotated codes are updated more quickly through annual and mid-year supplements in the form of pocket parts and pamphlets.  Keep in mind that online versions of the code will be even more up-to-date, regardless of whether you are looking at an online version of an annotated or unannotated code.
  • Annotations to Legislative History, Legislative History Explanations and Related Codes Section References.          Following the history line citations, annotated codes selectively provide additional explanation and analysis of amendments and changes to a code section. References to related code sections are also selectively provided.
  • Case Law Annotations
    These consist of brief abstracts and citations to cases (if any) that have applied or interpreted a code section. The case law annotations are grouped together and indexed in a section labeled Notes of Decisions or Case Notes.
  • Secondary Source Annotations
    Citations to relevant secondary research sources such as law review articles, legal encyclopedias, treatises, American Law Reports (ALR) annotations, relevant West Digest topics and key numbers, form books and other practice-related materials.
  • Subject Indexes & Finding Aids
    Annotated codes are usually accompanied by detailed subject indexes that are republished annually. These indexes also include a popular name index and tables to assist users in finding statutes.

U.S. Code - Online

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U.S. Code - Print Sources

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