Repositories of the Federal Constitution and of Federal and State Statutory Law and of Municipal Ordinances

The federal Constitution is our fundamental law. In its current embodiment, it is available both in print and online [1]. Historical versions of the Constitution are available as part of the official federal statutory collection, entitled The United States Statutes at Large and commonly known as Statutes at Large, which compiles every statute ever passed by Congress in chronological order. This collection is available at the official website of the Library of Congress [2]. The Constitution, as of 1789, is available in volume 1, page 10.

The federal Constitution is available from numerous other free-of charge repositories. For example, FDSys [3], the site of the U.S. Government Printing Office which disseminates official information from all three branches of the federal government, naturally contains past and current versions of the Constitution. The free-of-charge legal portal FindLaw [4], which contains both federal and state primary sources, also provides free access to the federal Constitution.

The fee-based digital aggregates Lexis-Nexis [5], Westlaw [6], and Bloomberg Law [7] contain the federal Constitution as well. Currently, information from Lexis and Westlaw can be accessed only after choosing a specific library or folder, such as “federal statutes,” while information on Bloomberg Law can be accessed by searching within the entire database, similar to a Google search. It seems that the next research platform from Westlaw (WestlawNext) and from Lexis (LexisAdvance) will resemble the Bloomberg Law search approach, and enable searches to be performed as soon as the user is logged in. The user does not need to designate a repository of information (i.e., “federal statutes”) as a conduit for the search algorithm. That being said, users need to know what they seek and where they expect to find it, otherwise primary sources can easily be confused with secondary sources, and vice versa.

Federal statutes are available in print and online. Because of their large number, statutes are officially collected both chronologically, in the order they are passed by each Congress, and by subject matter, according to 51 subject matters identified numerically in 51 titles. The official chronological collection is called The United States Statutes at Largecommonly known as Statutes at Large, and abbreviated Stat. The official codified version, with federal statutes collocated by subject matter, is called The United States Code, or U.S. Code, and it’s abbreviated U.S.C.

Statutes at Large contains every law, public and private, enacted by Congress in order of the date of its passage from 1789. Each volume is numbered sequentially. To access the entire collection of Statutes at Large free-of-charge, you need to have access to both a library that carries the print collection, and to the internet, because it is not available in its entirety in a single format.

The print collection of Statutes at Large does not contain the most recent statutes, and the electronic free-of-charge coverage of Statutes at Large is limited to the very old and very recent statutes, including those that are not yet available in the print collection. The first 18 volumes, which contain laws enacted from 1789 to 1875. They are available from the Library of Congress’s full-text electronic database, American Memory [1]. The most recent volumes, which contain laws enacted after 1995, are available from a different digital repository of the Library of Congress, THOMAS [2]. FDSys contains only a small selection of relatively recent federal statutes, published chronologically.

Only fee-based databases cover the entire collection of Statutes at Large in one place. Lexis, Westlaw, and Heinonline offer electronic coverage to the entire collection.

Unlike Statutes at LargeThe United States Code contains only the general and permanent public laws of the United States organized by subject matter, according to 51 numbered titles. A title may be made up of a few bound volumes. For example, federal statutes dealing with Education are located in title 20 of The United States Code, regardless of when they were passed. Currently there are six volumes of statutes that make up title 20. Moreover, unlike Statutes at LargeThe U.S. Code’s function is more than recording federal statutes: it is to ensure easy access to the applicable law. Thus, in addition to its topical (51 titles) organization, it is periodically updated to include all subsequent amendments. Every six years there is a new edition of The U.S. Code.

There are a few free-of-charge electronic repositories which contain federal statutes in their codified version. The most recent version is available from FDSys. Older editions, such as the 1994, 2000, and the 2006 editions are available from the full-text database offered by GPOAccess. In addition, it is available from THOMAS, which connects you with the version published by the Office of the Law Revision Counsel of the U.S. House of Representatives. This version is also available from the Public Library of Law [3] (the free arm of Fastcase [4]), FindLaw [5], and Cornell University Law School’s Legal Information Institute [6].

State statutes are available for free from each state official site, and from PLOL, FindLaw, and LII. Topical access to state statutes is also available from various organizations. For example, the Children’s Bureau [7] and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [8] have put together a site called Child Welfare Information Gateway [9], which is a portal to all state statutes focused on child welfare.

All three fee-based digital aggregates — Lexis, Westlaw, and Bloomberg Law — contain The United States Code. Similarly, they all contain the current version of all state statutes. Lexis and Westlaw also contain historical versions of some of those statutes.

At the municipal level, ordinances are sometimes difficult to find on the web, even with the fee-based databases. In this instance, library guides [10] to municipal ordinances are the best starting point to identify those repositories.