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Locating Legal Information in Primary and Secondary Resources: #4: Statutory Law: Federal

How to use specific legal resources.

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Statutory Law: Federal

Howard W. Hunter Law Library

Legal Research Guide #4

Statutory Law:  Federal 

 Introduction to Statutory Law

Laws enacted by the legislature are customarily referred to as “statutes” or “code sections.”  Legislators create these laws to apply to situations that will arise after the legislation goes into effect.

Typically, as bills pass the legislature, they are signed by the president. They are then arranged chronologically as session laws. The federal session law set is called the Statutes at Large. In addition to the session laws, the laws are also arranged topically as code sections.

Federal Statutory Law

The official code for federal statutory law is the United States Code (U.S.C.).  Additionally, there are two unofficial versions: United States Code Service (U.S.C.S.) and United States Code Annotated (U.S.C.A.). The last two are published privately.

All of these codes include the full text of United States statutory law as well as references to information about when the law was added or amended.  The annotated code, however, is more current and contains several useful features designed to aid the legal researcher.

Annotated codes include cross-references, case summaries, and historical information.

Cross-references include references to other laws related to a code section, as well as articles that discuss the code section. 

Case summaries (often called “annotations” or “notes of decision”) contain brief summaries of court decisions that interpret a code section.

Historical information includes details of amendments to a code section.

Using the Federal Codes

There are two methods of finding a particular section of the codes: locating a statute when you have a citation and locating a statute when you do not have a citation.

Locating a statute when you have a citation

The first step is to find the code in the law library.  The United States Code is available in the Research area of the Library's 2nd Floor. 

Now that you have located the code, you must be able to read the citation.  Citations to all three versions of the code (as well as online versions) use the same two-unit numbering system.  The first number refers to the code’s title number. The second number refers to the specific section number. 

(For a more detailed explanation of statutory citation format see Library Guide #1 “How to Read a Legal Citation.”)

The codes are updated by the use of supplements that are at the end of each code volume. After you have located your section, the final step is to check the supplements to find the most recent updates, annotations, and other information about your section.

Locating a statute when you do not have a citation

The first step is to find the codein the law library. 

Next, you must formulate the legal issue you want to research.  Think of the general area of law your topic might fall into.  Make a list of key words or phrases that your topic could be indexed under.

A multi-volume subject index is shelved at the end of the code.  This index is arranged alphabetically.  Next to each index term is a reference to a particular section of the code where the information can be located. 

The following tips will aid you in making the best use of this index. Look up the main subject, not a secondary subject.  Look up the noun, not the adjective.  Consult the most pertinent subject. Look up related headings.  Use the cross-references.

Once you have located your topic in the index, you will find a citation for the statute. Once you have the citation, locate it in the code.

After you have located your section, the final step, always, is to check the supplements to find the most recent updates, annotations, and other information about your section.


(Last Revised 3/6/2013)


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