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Understanding Statutes: United States Code and Statutes at Large

Basic Legal Research Concepts

United States Code and Statutes at Large

Statutes at Large is the name of the official federal session laws. When enacted, federal statutes are designated as either public laws or private laws. Both federal public laws and federal private laws are published in Statutes at Large.

·         As published, Statutes at Large are unedited and unclassified. When classifying Statutes at Large into the United States Code, minor editorial changes may be made to the text. The provisions of Statutes at Large may be included as notes to existing United States Code titles.

·         Note that Statutes at Large is the only source for federal private laws. These include private legislation, legislation regarding the District of Columbia, appropriations, commemorative legislation, treaties, temporary general public legislation, and special legislation with limited application.

United States Code is the official federal statutory compilation is. United States Code is completely republished every six years. It is updated between republications through annual cumulative supplements. Not all statutes enacted by Congress are contained in United States Code, as it only contains the public laws of a general and permanent nature.

·         The United States Code currently has 50 titles. Titles 1 through 33, and Titles 35 through 51. (Title 34 Navy was subsumed into Titles 10 Armed Forces and Title 50 War and National Defense after World War II). Title 51 National and Commercial Space Programs is the most recent title added to the Code.

Positive Law

In general, “Positive Law” refers to law that has been enacted by a duly authorized legislature. As such, it differs from “Natural Law” in legal philosophy to mean a set of universal principles and rules that properly govern moral human conduct. Unlike a statute, natural law is not created by human beings, but is  thought to be the preexisting law of nature, which human beings can discover through their capacity for rational analysis. As used in the context of the United States Code, “Positive Law” has a specific meaning. A positive law title of the Code is a title that has been enacted as a statute. Many of the titles of the United States Code have been enacted into positive law by Congress. Once enacted, all prior statutes regarding the same subject matter are repealed, including the Statutes at Large provisions.

The official source of the text for federal legislation not enacted into positive law remains the Statutes at Large. However, United States Code is the prima facie source for the text of federal legislation that has been enacted into positive law. If there is a conflict between the text of United States Code and Statutes at Large, the text that is controlling depends on which text is most authoritative. If the text has been enacted as positive law of the United States Code, that text is controlling. If it has not been so enacted, the text of the Statutes at Large is controlling.

Titles that have been enacted into positive law by Congress are: 1, 3, 4, 5, 9, 10, 11, 13, 14, 17, 18, 23, 28, 31, 32, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 44, 46, 49, and 51.

Titles not currently part of the United States Code, under consideration for addition as part of the positive law of the United States Code include Title 52, Voting and Elections, Title 53, Small Business, Title 54, National Park System, and Title 55, Environment.

Interstate Compacts

An interstate compact is an agreement between two or more states on matters of interstate importance and cooperation. These compacts must be approved by the Congress and are published in Statutes at Large. They are not published in United States Code. To be effective in any particular state, the interstate compact must also be enacted by the legislature of a state that is a party to the compact. Interstate compacts are published in the session laws of each enacting state. Interstate compacts are also published in the statutory compilations of each enacting state.

Sources for Federal Statutes

United States Code Annotated and United States Code Service are commercially published compilations of the United States Code. United States Code Annotated relies on the text of the official United States Code, while United States Code Service relies on the text of the Statutes at Large unless that title has been enacted into positive law.

Although the United States Code does not contain annotations of judicial opinions construing its provisions, both of the unofficial commercial compilations do.  That is why law offices and libraries subscribe to them.

United States Code Congressional and Administrative News and USCS Advance are the two commercial advance session law services for federal statutes. However, there is no official advance session law service for federal statutes.

Online databases: The United States Government Printing Office maintains www.gpo.gov/fdsys/ to provide free online access to official publications from all three branches of the Federal Government.  Federal government databases containing legislative and administrative materials include Thomas and the Library of Congress website of federal legislative information. The www.congress.gov website will eventually fully replace the content currently maintained at www.thomas.loc.gov.

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