Finding Federal Laws


Once a bill is signed into law by the President, it is published as an individual "slip law" and assigned a chronological number based on the Congress in session in which it passed. Therefore, Public Law 95-336 was the 336th law passed by the 95th Congress. Slip laws are then reprinted in the bound set called the United States Statutes at Large. The Statutes maintain the same chronological sequence as the slip laws; however, the volumes have numbers unrelated to the sessions of Congress. In which case, Public Law 95-336 can be found at Statutes at Large volume 92, page 451 and is properly cited as 92 Stat. 451.

The statutes are then organized ("codified") by subject in the United States Code. The Code compiles all the laws in effect on a given date into 52 subjects, called titles. As such, Public Law 95-366 becomes 21 USC §1001. The Code is recodified every six years and is kept up to date with an annual cumulative supplement. The United States Code Annotated is a commercially produced (Thomson Reuters) version of the United States Code which adds case notes, history, and commentary to each Code section. USCA is updated by annual cumulative pocket parts and pamphlet supplements which can be up to a year faster than those for the official version. An online version of the Code is also available from FDsys as well as other sources.

Finding Statutes By Subject

To find a law by subject, start with the United States Code database from FDsys. Then update your search in the Public and Private Laws database to find any new legislation on the subject. To be complete, also check in the United States Code Annotated index. If you cannot find the law you are looking for in one of the FDsys databases or USCA, read up on the subject in American Jurisprudence, 2nd edition (KF 75 .A47 1962 Reference). Our print set was cancelled in 2003, but it may be a good starting point compared to the online version in WestlawNext (to access in WestlawNext click on "Secondary Sources"). Case law governs some areas of law more than statutory law (contracts, for instance). AmJur should give you some feel for that.

FDsys: United States Code
The most official full text database of the United States Code. You may select a year to browse by Code title. Use the advanced search by adding "United States Code" to Selected Collections, then searching by keyword. Bring your search up-to-date by running the same search in the Public and Private Laws database.
Office of the Law Revision Counsel
Excellent resource from the entity responsible for maintaining and publishing the USC. Search the current version of the United States Code or download individual titles and sections. Search by keyword or specific title, section, part, etc. Prior versions back to 1994 also available by choosing the "Search in Version" option.
LII: U.S. Code
Using the databases from the Government Printing Office and the Library of Congress, LII provides browsable and searchable access to the United States Code which allows you to quickly see notes, updates, parallel CFR authorities, and related information.
United States Code Annotated, annual.
KF 62 .W45 (Reference)
Most up-to-date version of the Code. The General Index (which is cumulative) will refer you to a title and section in the Code -- title and section numbers in the Code and Code Annotated are exactly the same. Always remember to check a book's pocket part for the latest information. If the law passed during the current legislature, check the most recent pamphlet supplement to USCA.
United States Code
Y 1.2/5: (Documents/Reference)
The official subject codification of all general and permanent laws of the United States. Published every 6 years with annual cumulative supplement.

Finding Statutes by Name

To find a law by its popular name, start with one of the online versions of the Table of Popular Names. For a very recent law, you may need to search Public and Private Laws in FDsys, although popular names are not always included in the actual text of the act. You may also find a reference to the bill in CQ Weekly or a newspaper article which gives the public law number. The "Status of Legislation" in CQ Weekly gives the public law number for the most important legislation of that session of Congress (when published, it is available under Weekly Report--For the Record). Follow the link to Public Laws on Congress.gov to see the public laws from the current congressional session (other lists of public laws available back to 1973). The Congressional Record (X 1.1:vol. Documents) also records the public law number when a law is passed.

LII: U.S. Code Table of Popular Names
Alphabetical list of common names for public laws. Where possible, LII has linked each name to its section of the Code.
Popular Name Tool
Another alphabetical listing; scroll list. From the Office of the Law Revision Counsel.

Finding Statutes by Public Law Number

1989 to present

Cornette Library does not receive printed slip laws (an individual pamphlet print of a single law). Therefore, to find a copy of a law before it is printed in the Statutes at Large use:

FDsys: Public and Private Laws
May browse the full text of all laws passed since the 104th Congress (1996). Updated as new slip laws are published. Can use the FDsys advanced search page to search (add Statutes at Large to Selected Collections before entering search terms). For more information, see About Public and Private Laws.
Thomas: Browse Public Laws
Summary information for public laws from the 93rd Congress (1973) through the 100th Congress (1988). Full-text of public laws from the 101st Congress (1989) to the present. Thomas is scheduled to be taken down in 2015.
Current Session Public Law Numbers
List of public laws in the current congressional session.

Before 1989

If the law was passed before the 100th Congress, you will need to scan the spines of the Statutes at Large to find the appropriate volumes. You should then check the title pages of each volume for the correct range of public laws. Once you have the correct volume and part, the "List of Public Laws" will give you the page number where the law begins.

United States Statutes at Large, 1903 - (Documents)
AE 2.111:vol (1984 - )
GS 4.111:vol (1949 - 1983)
S 7.9:vol (1903 - 1948)
microfiche (1799 - 1948), shelved in CRS microfiche cabinet
Contains public and private laws, concurrent resolutions, and proclamations passed by Congress and signed by the President. Each volume also has a subject and name index.
Avalon Project: Selected Statutes of the United States: Chronological (Yale Law School)
Intended to include "digital documents relevant to the fields of Law, History, Economics, Politics, Diplomacy and Government". Includes separate sections on Statutes Concerning Native Americans and Slavery.
United States Statutes at Large
Full text of the Statutes at Large for the first forty-two Congresses (from 1789 until 1873). Browsable images. Can search the General Index or the Collections Search page (select the title Statutes at Large, index only).

Updating a Public Law

To find the current status of a very recent law when you have the public law number, use the US Code Classification Tables below. For an earlier law, search one of the electronic versions of the United States Code AND check the Tables volume of USCA.

United States Code Classification Tables
Organizes public laws by public law number and by Code section. Use the table sorted by Public Law number to determine which sections of the Code will be affected by a particular law. Use the table sorted by Code section to find out whether a particular section of the Code has recently been amended.
United States Code Annotated, annual.
KF 62 .W45 (Reference)
Reprints the official code but adds historical notes, cross references, references to key numbers in West's digest system, and extensive case notes. Use the Tables volumes, making sure to use all three volumes -- the bound volume, a bound cumulative supplement, and a pamphlet cumulative supplement. The Table is laid out in chronological order and will refer you from the public law number to the title and section of the USC and USCA. The Table will also tell you if the law has been eliminated or repealed. For recent legislation, remember to check the Tables section in the pamphlet supplement.

For More Information

Legal Research: How to Find and Understand the Law
Stephen Elias. 16th ed. Berkeley, CA : Nolo Press, 2012
KF 240 .E35 2012 (Reference)
Legal Research in a Nutshell
Morris L. Cohen, Kent C. Olson. 6th ed. St. Paul, Minn : West, 1996.
KF 240 .C54 1996 (Reference)
Fundamentals of Legal Research
J. Myron Jacobstein, Roy M. Mersky, and Donald J. Dunn. 1998 ed. Mineola, NY : Foundation Press, 1998.
KF 240 .J32 1998 (Reference)

Any questions? Ask a Librarian, or call us at 806/651-2205.