Public Laws

Public Laws in the United States

Public Laws are the individual laws (a/k/a “statutes” or “session laws”) created and enacted by the U.S. government that affect the general population (as opposed to Private Laws, which affect only specified individuals or entities). Public Laws are published officially in Statutes at Large and subsequently Codified in the United States Code.

Recent P.L.s are posted free on FDsys back to the 104th Congress (1995-96); older P.L.s are available on Thomas back to the 93rd Congress (1973-74). FDsys lets you search and browse titles. With Thomas you pretty much have to know the Bill or P.L. number.

Public Laws are published in the U.S. Code Congressional and Administrative New Service (USCCAN), back to 1941 and, after a year or so, in Statutes at Large all the way back to 1789 (see “Statutes At Large”).

On Lexis, you can get newer P.L.s in the Public Law file (GENFED;PUBLAW) back to the 2nd Session of the 100th Congress (1987), and older P.L.s in the Statutes at Largefile (LEGIS;STATLG) back to 1798. You can get P.L.s using the formats: 104 pl 365 or 38 stat 717.

Westlaw has public laws in four database: US-STATLRG covers 1798 to 1972; USCCAN-PL covers 1973 to the present; US-PL-OLD covers 1973 to the last completed Congressional term; US-PL covers the public laws from the current Congress. You can “Find” public laws on Westlaw using the format: PL 104-365.

HeinOnline offers subscribers a complete online edition of Statues at Large.

Additional sources for public laws are discussed in the LLSDC’s Legislative Sourcebook; scroll down to the section called “Electronic Sources for U.S. Statutes and the U.S. Code.”

To get a recent Public Law number, search bill summaries by keyword/subject/etc. on Thomas. For older laws, you can look up the bill number in the CIS/Index to Publications of the United States Congress back to 1970 (LEGIS;CISINX on Lexis), the Congressional Masterfile I from 1978-1980 (LEGIS;CISHIST on Lexis), the CCH Congressional Index back to 1941 or the United States Code Congressional and Administrative News (USCCAN) also back to 1941.

Annotations: If a Federal law has been codified into the United States Code, you can find annotations for each Code section in the United States Code Annotated and theUnited States Code Service (see “United States Code”). If a Federal law has not been codified, you can find judicial opinions, law review articles and other sources citing a Federal public law by Shepardizing the Statutes at Law citation in the print edition ofShepard’s Federal Statute Citations.

Codification: To see where a section of a recent Public Law has been put into the United States Code (USC), you can try to read the Public Law closely to see if it tells you where the section goes. Alternatively, you can:

  • look in the paper back Tables volumes at the end of the United States Code Annotated (USCA); or
  • look up the law in the Concordance of Federal Legislation (William S. Hein & Co.), which is designed expressly for this purpose; or
  • look up the law in the United States Code Congressional and Administrative News (USCCAN) – USC sites are printed in the margins for laws published since 1979; or
  • do a keyword search in an electronic edition of the USC; or
  • look up the section by subject in the index to the United States Code Annotated (USCA) or United States Code Service (USCS).

If you know the “popular name” of the law, you can look it up in a Popular Name Table, as discussed in the “Popular Names” section of the United States Code entry and in the United Codes platform.

For a discussion of Federal legislation and Public Laws, see Fundamentals of Legal Research (West).

Public Laws Citation System

This section provides a broad appreciation of the Public Laws Citation System legal topic. Select from the U.S. citation legal topics for more information (including Public Laws Citation System).

See Also

Bill Status
Federal Bills
Federal Legislative History
Presidential Materials
Statutes At Large
United States Code

Public Laws: 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 Public Laws. This part provides references, in relation to Public Laws, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

Federal primary materials about Public Laws 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 Public Laws 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 Public Laws 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 Public Laws 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 Public Laws. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about Public Laws 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 Public Laws when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

Tools and Forms

Law in Other Regions

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