Federal Statutes

Federal Statutes in the United States

Researching Federal Statutes

This entry provides a fairly comprehensive overview of sources available for United States federal statutory material. This resource covers print and online sources, as well as commercial, academic, and government sources.

The initial step in approaching many legal research questions is to determine whether there is an applicable statute. Legal treatises, law review articles, and other secondary sources will often indicate the controlling statutes in an area of law and are good starting places for statutory research. This entry is intended to assist the user in both locating and updating known statutes and in identifying federal statutes by citation, name, or subject. Some important Internet sites are listed throughout this entry of the legal Encyclopedia.

In most cases, the materials listed here will provide sufficient research leads to identify and interpret appropriate statutes and relevant case and regulatory laws. Sometimes, however, an examination of the legislative intent behind the enactment of a statute will be required to understand a statute’s purpose or applicability. Research the entry about Federal Legislative History, which outlines the steps involved in conducting a federal legislative history. Legislative history research can be time consuming.

The usual starting point for statutory research is a code. Codes represent a subject  arrangement of statutes that are currently in effect. Codes generally preserve the original language of a session law but rearrange sections of the session law so that each section appears with other statutory language on the same topic. Annotated codes provide case, law review, and other annotations which aid in the understanding of the code section.


Current federal codes are published in several separate sets:

  • United States Code (USC) is the official version of the Code. It is divided into 50 subject titles and subdivided by section. First published in 1926, a new edition is now issued approximately every six years. Bound cumulative supplements reflecting changes in the law are issued annually, but are often out-of-date by the time they are published.
  • United States Code platform of the American Encyclopedia of Law (see the website for more information about this annoted US Code)
  • United States Code Annotated (USCA), published by West, follows the same title and section arrangement as the official Code but includes annotations to judicial decisions, law review articles, legal encyclopedias, American Law Reports, and references to other West publications such as USCCAN and to the “key number” system. USCA is supplemented by annual pocket parts and by bimonthly Statutory Supplements.
  • United States Code Service (USCS), published by Lexis (formerly published by Lawyers Co-op), also follows the same title and section arrangement as the official Code and provides annotations with references to judicial decisions, law review articles, Am. Jur., American Law Reports, and other secondary sources. USCS is supplemented by annual pocket parts, quarterly “Cumulative Later Case and Statutory Service” supplements and monthly Advance pamphlets.

Because of the timeliness of the supplementation as well as the presence of annotations, either USCA or USCS, rather than the official USC, is usually the preferred starting place for federal statutory research. It is important to note that the annotations in USCA and USCS are not entirely duplicative. You should always check both annotated sources to ensure fuller coverage of your Code section.

Some online resources:


A. By Code Cite: Since all three versions of the Code follow the same title and section
arrangement, having a citation to any of them allows easy access to other versions.

  • Lexis: For an immediate viewing of a USCS section, select “Get a Document”
    and enter the citation to the USC section, e.g., 42 USC 12101.
  • Westlaw: For an immediate viewing of a USCA section, select “Find” and enter
    the citation to the USC section, e.g., 42 USC 12101.

B. By Public Law Cite: Parallel Reference Tables found in the Tables volumes of USC, USCA
and USCS are used to convert Public Law numbers and Statutes at Large cites into USC
cites. These tables also show the disposition (i.e. repealed, renumbered, etc.) of older Code
sections. In addition, tables in Statutes at Large and USCCAN convert bill numbers to
Public Law numbers. To convert USC sections to P.L. numbers, see the annotations at the
end of the Code section. LexisNexis also contains two USCS databases to assist in this
research: CODES; USREVT is the USCS Revised Title Table; and CODES; USSALT is
the USCS Statutes at Large Table. Westlaw contains one USCA database to assist in this
research: USCA-Tables.

C. By Topic: Many of the sources for federal statutes include detailed subject indexes.

  • Statutes at Large and USCCAN both contain subject indexes for each legislative
    session. These indexes indicate the page on which the text of the legislation can be
  • Codes: USC, USCA and USCS all contain general subject indexes found at the
    end of each set which provide access to all 50 titles of the Code. In addition, USCA
    and USCS provide subject indexes after each individual title of the Code specifically
    geared to that title.
  • Online Indexes: LexisNexis, Westlaw and the two Internet sites listed above are searchable by keyword. However, sometimes it is more fruitful to search the online indexes or table of contents to the code which are available on Lexis and Westlaw. Westlaw’s online index is often the best place to start since specific subheadings may be hidden under a very general heading making them difficult tofind in a print index but easily retrievable online. the Lexis’ Table of Contents file can also be useful.

D. By Popular Name: Often legislation becomes known by a particular name rather than by
its citation. In addition, newer legislation is often assigned a “short title” by which it becomes
known. When only the name of federal legislation is known, the following sources can
provide access:

  • Popular Name Tables can be found at the end of the general indexes to USC,
    USCA and USCS. These tables list federal acts alphabetically by their short titles
    or common names and provide citations to the appropriate title and section of the
  • Shepard’s Acts and Cases by Popular Name: Federal and State provides
    references to the common names of both federal and state statutes and cases. Because
    of its comprehensive nature, Shepard’s Acts and Cases by Popular Name often
    lists several citations to a particular name and you must determine which is the
    appropriate section for your research.
  • USCCAN also provides a popular name table which can be invaluable for locating both recently passed legislation and older statutes by name. Knowing the year or a range of years during which the legislation was passed is necessary to use the USCCAN popular name table.
  • Lexis and Westlaw are best suited to locating statutes by their short titles which are generally included in the wording of the statute. Since popular names are rarely included in the text of the legislation, often a topical, keyword approach is required to locate legislation. Both LexisNexis and Westlaw have popular names tables.
  • Check for law review articles. Indexes are available in print and online. A law review article on your topic may cite relevant codes and statutes.

Legal periodicals Online indexes include:

  • Index to Legal Periodicals (ILP) (print version), 1887- ;
  • Index to Legal Periodicals on WilsonWeb, 1981- ;
  • Index to Legal Periodicals Retrospective on WilsonWeb, 1918-1981;
  • Current Law Index (print version), 1980 – ;
  • LegalTrac (or InfoTrac) (Web subscription), 1980- ;
  • Legal Resource Index (Lexis & Westlaw), 1980-present.


Shepard’s Federal Statutes Citations provides citations to cases and some legal texts which have
referred to a particular Code section. Code sections can be Shepardized by their USC citation and uncodified statutes by their Statutes at Large citation.


Only laws which are general and permanent in nature are codified. Occasionally, legislation is
passed but is left uncodified. In addition, current editions of the Code do not reprint older, superseded laws. Locating either uncodified or superseded legislation requires you to go to one of the following sources:

  • Statutes at Large is a permanent record of the laws passed during each Congress. The laws
    are published chronologically and the set includes all public laws passed since 1789. Both
    uncodified laws and superseded laws can be located in Statutes at Large if the year of the
    legislation is known. Each volume includes a subject index and tables for help in locating
    desired legislation.
  • USCCAN is a commercial publication which includes a record of all laws passed since 1939 in chronological order. It also includes Executive Orders and Proclamations and can be used to locate both uncodified and superseded legislation. USCCAN provides popular name and subject indexes and tables for help in locating legislation. It is also a place to begin legislative history since some legislative committee reports are reproduced and references to others are included.
  • Superceded Codes: UCLA Law Library keeps the older versions of both the official and the commercial Codes but only retains the superseded bound volumes and their final pocket parts. These versions can be useful in finding the text of superseded Code sections along with their annotations. Westlaw and LexisNexis also contain Code archive databases.
  • USCS Uncodified is a separately bound volume of USCS which contains annotations to uncodified legislation but does not reproduce the text of the legislation.
  • United States Revised Statutes is the official codification of the federal laws which were in effect in 1873. Found in Volume 18 of Statutes at Large, the Revised Statutes provides a subject arrangement for historical Code research.

Application of Federal Statutes in International Cases in International Civil Litigation

Analysis of the Application of Federal Statutes in International Cases.


Federal statutes are arranged in two different ways:

  • Chronologically as session laws; and
  • Topically (i.e. arranged by subject) in Codes. The Codes are the standard working tool of
    the researcher delving into statutory law.

Federal statutes are first published as slip laws (individual pamphlets designated by public law
number and containing the text of newly passed legislation). At the end of each Congress, the slip laws are compiled and published in chronological sequence as session laws in the official session law publication for federal statutes, United States Statutes at Large. West Publishing publishes an unofficial session law set, United States Code Congressional and Administrative News (USCCAN.) USCCAN is the standard working tool for session law research because it is far more current than either the official slip laws or United States Statutes at Large.

Updating and Validating Federal Statutes

Regardless of what source the researcher or practitioner use to locate a section of a Federal statute, he or she should always update and validate that section. For information on how to update and validate a Federal statute section, click here for information about Updating and Validating Statutes. In the entry about researching State statutes there is also a section on Updating State Statutes and on Validating State Statutes.

Updating the Codes

Before relying on a statute as authority, the researcher must verify that it has not been amended or repealed. In addition to checking the annual pocket parts and the quarterly supplements, you should check one of the following resources for the current status of your Code section. These resources can also be used to find the text of newly passed statutes.

  • U.S. Code Congressional and Administrative News (USCCAN) is a chronological
    compilation of federal legislation passed. It includes the text of the legislation as
    well as selected legislative history materials for each Public Law. USCCAN is
    published monthly and each issue contains a subject index, a popular name table,
    and tables of laws enacted and code sections affected.
  • USCS Advance Sheets, a monthly update to USCS, publishes the text of new Public Laws, Executive Orders and Presidential Documents and includes tables of Acts by Popular Name and of Code Sections Affected by new legislation.
  • USCA Statutory Supplement, is a bimonthly update to the USCA. This supplement follows the arrangement of the USCA, incorporating new statutory language and new annotations added during the current year.
  • The text of federal statutes may also be found in some vendors (see below)
  • Internet: Public and Private Laws: http://www.gpoaccess.gov/plaws/ (from104th Congress (1995)) and THOMAS: http://thomas.loc.gov/ (searchable from 101st Congress as bills; arranged by Public Law # from 93rd Cong.)

Formerly, Lexis and West used the following databases :

  • Lexis: CODES; PUBLAW (for Public laws from 100th Congress (1988))
  • Lexis: CODES;USCODE (a combined database for the annotated code, public laws, and international conventions).
  • Westlaw: US-PL (for current Public Laws);
  • Westlaw:US-PL-OLD (for Public Laws from 1973 to the previous term)
  • USCCAN-PL (for Public Laws from 1973 forward)



See Also

  • International Tort
  • Discovery in International Civil Litigation
  • International Litigation
  • Civil Litigation Law
  • Choice of Forum Clause

Federal Statutes: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

Federal Primary Materials

The U.S. federal government system consists of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each of which creates information that can be the subject of legal research about Federal Statutes. This part provides references, in relation to Federal Statutes, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

Federal primary materials about Federal Statutes by content types:

Laws and Regulations

US Constitution
Federal Statutory Codes and Legislation

Federal Case Law and Court Materials

U.S. Courts of Appeals
United States courts of appeals, inclouding bankruptcy courts and bankcruptcy appellate panels:

Federal Administrative Materials and Resources

Presidential Materials

Materials that emanate from the President’s lawmaking function include executive orders for officers in departments and agencies and proclamations for announcing ceremonial or commemorative policies. Presidential materials available include:

Executive Materials

Federal Legislative History Materials

Legislative history traces the legislative process of a particular bill (about Federal Statutes and other subjects) for the main purpose of determining the legislators’ intent behind the enactment of a law to explain or clarify ambiguities in the language or the perceived meaning of that law (about Federal Statutes or other topics), or locating the current status of a bill and monitoring its progress.

State Administrative Materials and Resources

State regulations are rules and procedures promulgated by state agencies (which may apply to Federal Statutes and other topics); they are a binding source of law. In addition to promulgating regulations, state administrative boards and agencies often have judicial or quasi-judicial authority and may issue administrative decisions affecting Federal Statutes. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about Federal Statutes should check state agency web sites for their regulations, decisions, forms, and other information of interest.

State rules and regulations are found in codes of regulations and administrative codes (official compilation of all rules and regulations, organized by subject matter). Search here:

State opinions of the Attorney General (official written advisory opinions on issues of state law related to Federal Statutes when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

Tools and Forms

Law in Other Regions

*This resource guide is updated frequently. However, if you notice something is wrong or not working, or any resources that should be added, please notify us in any of the "Leave a Comment" area.

3 thoughts on “Federal Statutes”

  1. Online sources for federal statutes:

    Codes: United States federal statutory sources are available online in several forms. Begin with access.gpo.gov. This is the homepage of the Government Printing Office, the official printer of the federal government. Follow the link labelled “GPO Access” on that page to access a wide range of official federal government sources. For statutes, click the link under “Legislative” (in the left column) or else go directly to the U.S. Code (right column). You will have the option of keyword searching the code or browsing by title and chapter. Both methods have drawbacks compared to the flexibility of the print editions — with keyword searching you will have to correctly guess the wording used in the code section you want and the browsing option does not map chapter titles to their included section numbers — but the U.S. Code is fully available online (check carefully for the date through which the code is current, however, you may also need to search public laws for more recent changes).

    The U.S. Code is also available from the Cornell’s Legal Information Institute. In this form, sections can be accessed by citation (title and section number) and code titles can be searched individually: www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode/

    Unfortunately, the very helpful commercially-published annotated editions of the U.S. Code are not available to the public online. These editions, the United States Code Annotated and the United States Code Service are very useful to the researcher because they include, following each section of the code, citations to and descriptions of case law and other useful cross-references. They also are updated in a way that makes them somewhat easier to use than the print or online versions of the GPO edition of the U.S. Code.

  2. Session Laws: These are available through GPO Access (see “Codes”, above) only for the 104th (1995-1996) and later sessions of Congress. Click on “legislative” (left column). Once that page loads, scroll down to “Public and Private Laws”. There is a link “Helpful hints for searching Public and Private Laws” that you certainly should read. Most often it will be easiest not to search these by subject term or word, but instead to look for specific public laws (by public law number) cited in the history and amendments areas following a section of the U.S. Code.

    Public laws are probably best made available online through the very useful Thomas (thomas.loc.gov), the web page of the U.S. Congress. On Thomas, public laws are available from the 93d Congress (1973-1974) forward, but only by public law number (the number of the Congress, followed by a dash and the sequential number of the law) without any form of subject searching.

  3. Legislative history: You might notice that Thomas also offers a variety of sources for researching on the Web some of the legislative history surrounding the passage of legislation. Legislative history is not itself law, and so I will keep comments in this section to a minimum, but it can be a useful aid to understanding the legislation itself.

    Debates that occur on the floor of either house of Congress can be found in the Congressional Record, which is available and searchable through GPO Access (see under “Codes” in this legal encyclopedia). Most of the detailed work on legislation, however, occurs in the committees — Reports (which usually accompany a bill a committee wants the whole house to pass) and the transcripts of Hearings are published and can often at least be identified through Thomas (you might need to use print sources or subscription web pages to actually read the full documents, there is an online tool at gpoaccess.gov/libraries.html for finding libraries that are depositories for federal documents.) Begin with the “Bill Summary and Status” link on the top of the left column of options.

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