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Legal Methods: Statutory Research

The basic techniques of legal analysis, writing and research.

Federal Statutory Law

Statutes enacted by a legislature are organized by subject matter into what is called a "code." Codes are published by jurisdiction; each jurisdiction that enacts statutes collects them in its own code.  The federal government publishes the federal code, which contains all federal statutes.  Statutes for each state are published in individual state codes.

When a federal law is enacted, it is published in three steps:

1.  Every law passed by Congress is assigned a public law number.  Each public law is published in a separate booklet or pamphlet containing the full text of the law as it was passed by Congress.  This booklet is known as a slip law and is identified by its public law number.

2.  Slip laws for a session of Congress are compiled together in chronological order.  Laws organized within this chronological compilation are called session laws because they are organized according to the session of Congress during which they were enacted.  Session laws are compiled in a publication called United States Statutes at Large.

3.  The third step in the process is the codification of the law.  When Congress enacts a law, it enacts a block of legislation that may cover a wide range of topics.  A single bill can contain provisions applicable to many different parts of the government.  The pieces of the bill are recognized according to the different subjects they cover, and they are placed by subject, or codified , within the federal code.

Print Resources for Federal Statutes

The U.S.C., is the official code and is unannotated.  

The United States Code is the codification by subject matter of the general and permanent laws of the United States based on what is printed in the Statutes at Large. It is divided by broad subjects into 50 titles and published by the Office of the Law Revision Counsel of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Since 1926, the United States Code has been published every six years. In between editions, annual cumulative supplements are published in order to present the most current information.

The two unofficial codes, U.S.C.A. and U.S.C.S., are annotated codes. 

These annotated versions contain notes following each section of the law, which summarize relevant court decisions, law review articles, and other authorities, and may also include uncodified provisions that are part of the Public Laws. The publishers of these versions frequently issue supplements that contain newly-enacted laws, which may not yet have appeared in an official published version of the Code. When an attorney is viewing an annotated code on an online service, such as Westlaw or LexisNexis, all the citations in the annotations are hyperlinked to the referenced opinions and documents. 

Using the exact language of Congress so that you can cite it with confidence, the USCS provides comprehensive, annotated coverage of the entire U.S. Code, the U.S. Constitution, the Federal Rules of Civil, Criminal, Bankruptcy, and Appellate Procedure, the Federal Rules of Evidence, rules of the Courts of Appeals and specialized federal courts, the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, as well as selected federal regulations and international agreements. Annotative materials include case annotations from court cases and federal agency decisions, expert commentary, cross references to the Code of Federal Regulations, and references to numerous treatises and law review articles.

Researching Federal Statutes

Finding:

U.S.C.

  • Use the Popular Names table
  • Use the Index:  General if unsure of the title or for more updates, Title Index to narrow down the search
  • Use the Tables of Contents for each title to find chapters and sections
  • Use the Tables of Classification to convert a P.L. or Stat. citation to U.S.C.

U.S.C.A.

  • Use the Popular Names table or Classification tables (PL to USCA, USCA to PL)
  • Use the Index:  General or Title

U.S.C.S.

  • Use the Popular Names table or Classification tables (USCS to CFR)

    Updating:

    U.S.C.

    • Hardcover cumulative supplements
    • Session and slip laws published since the latest supplement

    U.S.C.A.

    • Annual pocket parts or supplements or separate softcover pamphlets, quarterly advance sheets, and softcover (noncumulative) pamphlets 

    U.S.C.S.

    • Pocket parts, quarterly Cumulative Later Case and Statutory Service, and monthly Advance pamphlets

    You want to see the text of the law as it was originally passed by Congress:

    IF YOU KNOW ...TO LOCATE THE LAW, CHECK...
    1. A citation to the law by public or private law number (Pub. L. 108-79 or Priv. L. 108-2) or a citation to where the law appears in the United States Statutes at Large (117 Stat. 972). Print: For both public and private laws, check the appropriate volume of the United States Statutes at Large. For public laws only, you can also use the United States Code Congressional and Administrative News (USCCAN). For public laws from the current Congress, check the supplements to USCCAN or the Advance Sheets of the United States Code Service.

    Electronic: For both public and private laws, check GPO Access/FDSys (http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/) under the heading 'Legislative Resources'. For public laws only, check the Library of Congress Congress.gov web site (http://thomas.loc.gov). (Note: Public laws in Congress.gov can be searched only by public law citation.)
    2. The name of the law.

     

    Print: The Popular Name Table in the United States Code (GPO), United States Code Annotated (USCA - West), or the United States Code Service (USCS - LEXIS) should be consulted. If you are looking for a recent law, check the same tables in the most current supplement available to USCCAN or in the Advance Sheets for the United States Code Service. Additionally, you can consult Shepard's Acts and Cases by Popular Name.

    Electronic: Both GPO Access/FDSys and Congress.gov can be used to find laws by name. In Congress.gov you will need to use the 'Search Bills and Resolutions' feature that will allow you to search either Bill Summary and Status or Full Text and type the name of the law in the Word/phrase slot.

     

    You want to locate the law in the United States Code:

    IF YOU KNOW ... TO LOCATE THE LAW, CHECK...
    1. A citation to the public law number (Pub. L. 108-79) or where the law is published in the United States Statutes at Large (117 Stat. 974). Print: Check the Table of Statutes at Large in the appropriate Tables volume of the United States Code, United States Code Annotated, or United States Code Service. The corresponding United States Code citation for public laws can be found in the left-hand or right-hand margins of the Statutes at Large or USCCAN.

    Electronic: Check the United States Code web site (http://uscode.house.gov)
    2. The name of the law.

     

    Print: The Popular Name Table in the United States Code, United States Code Annotated or United States Code Service should be consulted. If you are looking for a recent law, check the same tables in the most current supplement available to USCCAN or in the Advance Sheets for the United States Code Service. Additionally, you can consult Shepard's Acts and Cases by Popular Name.

    Electronic: Check the United States Code web site (http://uscode.house.gov)

    3. The subject of the law.

     

    Print: Consult the appropriate Index volume in the United States Code, United States Code Annotated or United States Code Service.

    Electronic: Check the United States Code web site (http://uscode.house.gov)

      State Statutory Law - PA

      Purdon's Pennsylvania Statutes and Consolidated Statutes Annotated

      This set contains the complete unofficial Pennsylvania statutory law as codified into subject matter titles, plus the Pennsylvania Constitution and court rules. The materials are extensively annotated with legislative histories showing when and how the law changed and with comprehensive notes of state and federal judicial decisions interpreting and applying the law. A detailed general index and popular name table help you locate subject matter with pinpoint accuracy. Additional annotative features that point to other relevant law, scholarly works, and practice aids are also provided.

      Rules of Procedure

      The rules of procedure for most courts are published as part of the code for the jurisdiction where the court is located.  For example, Purdon's has 5 volumes starting with Title 42.

      As with any other type of research, you may want to locate secondary sources for commentary on the rules and citations to cases interpreting the rules -- Moore's Federal Practice and Wright & Miller's Federal Practice and Procedure.

      For state procedural rules, a state "deskbook" or handbook containing practical information for lawyers practicing in the jurisdiction, may contain both the text of the rules and helpful commentary on them.

      All jurisdictions have multiple types and levels of courts, and each of these courts may have its own procedural rules.  Be sure you locate the rules for the appropriate court.

      Many individual districts, circuits, or divisions of courts have local rules with which you must comply.  Local rules cannot conflict with the rules of procedure published with the code, but they may add requirements that do not appear in the rules of procedure.  Local rules are not published with the code, but you can obtain them from a number of sources, including the court itself.