Federal Statutory Law

Article I, Section 1 of the Constitution of the United States identifies the federal legislative body and states that “all legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States.” Article I empowers Congress to pass statutes, which are the source of legislation. Article VI, paragraph 2, of the Constitution establishes that federal legislation occupies the next place in the hierarchy of our legal system, next to the Constitution itself. This article is usually referred to as the “supremacy clause:”

This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all the Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.[1]

Federal statutory law is not formally limited to domestic statutes. It also includes treaties concluded with other countries. In our system, any foreign treaty to which the United States is a party is not automatically binding. Congress must approve it, through the process of ratification that ends with Congress incorporating the treaty into a domestic statute.

Repositories of Federal Statutory Law


Federal legislation, like its state counterpart, is published in two ways: chronologically and topically.

The Chronological Compilation
The federal statutory compilation organized chronologically is called Statutes at Large. This chronological collection contains all laws passed by Congress, whether they are public laws or private laws. Each volume has a table of contents that lists the statutes passed by that Congress in that specific session by their title and their public or private number.

This collection is available both in print and online, through governmental and proprietary databases. The governmental publications, whether on print or online are not complete. For example, online only the first 18 volumes of the Statutes at Large-from 1789 through 1875- available on the Library of Congress’s Web site, at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lwsllink.html, and all the statutes passed by Congress since 1993 are available — from a different Library of Congress’s site, Thomas.loc.gov.

Thomas.loc.gov. is not the best designed web site imaginable, but once you become familiar with its goal, it is manageable. Thomas is mostly meant as a legislative history site, for statutes and bills whose citation you know. For example, if you know that the original Patriot Act was passed on October 26, 2001, under the following numeric identifier, PUBLIC LAW 107–56, then you can visit Thomas, locate the public law and find out its legislative history.

The Topical Compilation

Additionally, as mentioned on this wiki site the general and permanent laws of the United States are also published in a multi-volume collection that is organized by subject matter. This codified version is called the United States Code. Until recently*, this topical compilation of federal public laws was organized in 50 numbered titles which cover broad areas, such as “Hospitals and Asylums” (title 24) or “War and National Defense” (title 50).

On December 18, 2010, once again underlying the dynamic aspect of our legal system, Pub. Law 111–314, 124 STAT. 3328, established the codification of laws related to
“National and Commercial Space Programs,” into a new title, title 51.

As mentioned before the Statutes at Large and the United States Code are the official statutory collections because they are published by the government. They are both available in print and electronically.

The United States Code is available from The Office of the Law Revision Counsel’s (OCLR) site, and FDsys.
In a desire to improve the currency of the U.S.C. data, the OLRC has moved closer to an “e-USC” similar to the e-CFR via a mechanism they call “usc-Prelim”, described at http://uscode.house.gov/uscprelim/uscprelim.shtm.

This “usc-Prelim” feature is also available from Cornell’s LII.

In addition to these free-of-charge options, both the chronological and the codified version of federal statutes are also published in commercial publications. The current dominating proprietary databases are those belonging to the West Group, LexisNexis, and BloombergLaw.com.

Once again I will repeat their names, and their abbreviations. The West statutory codification is called the United States Code Annotated. The Lexis statutory codification is called the United States Code Service. The BloombergLaw.com statutory codification retains the name of the official statutory compilation, though without identifying the year of its currency.

The United States Code is abbreviated U.S.C. The United States Code Annotated is abbreviated U.S.C.A., and the United States Code Service is abbreviated U.S.C.S. Thus, you may see references to 42 U.S.C. § 2000d as 42 U.S.C.A. § 2000d or 42 U.S.C.S. § 2000d. They will contain the same statutory provision. The only difference is that the commercial publications belonging to Westlaw and Lexis and their more recent platforms have editorial enhancements: annotations that provide reference to cases and administrative rules and even administrative decisions, if any.

Please remember that most of the information provided in annotations, cases, and administrative rules and decisions, is government-authored information and it can be found in some free legal databases. Of course, for lack of resources, the free databases are much harder to navigate, and without excellent research skills, their information risks to be outdated.

*Now there are 54 Titles in the United States Code (U.S.C.).