United States Code

United States Code
A few volumes of Title 11 (Bankruptcy) of the United States Code Annotated (U.S.C.A.) at a law library.

The Code of Laws of the United States of America[1] (variously abbreviated to Code of Laws of the United States, United States Code, U.S. Code, or U.S.C.) is a compilation and codification of the general and permanent federal laws of the United States. It contains 50 titles[2] (along with a further 4 proposed titles[3]) and is published every six years by the Office of the Law Revision Counsel of the House of Representatives.[4] The current edition of the code was published in 2006, and according to the US Government Printing Office, it's over 200,000 pages long.


Codification process

The official text of an Act of Congress is that of the "enrolled bill" (traditionally printed on parchment) presented to the President for his signature or disapproval. Upon enactment of a law, the original bill is delivered to the Office of the Federal Register (OFR) within the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).[5] After authorization from the OFR,[6] copies are distributed as "slip laws" by the Government Printing Office (GPO). The Archivist assembles annual volumes of the enacted laws and publishes them as the United States Statutes at Large. By law, the text of the Statutes at Large is "legal evidence" of the laws enacted by Congress.[7] Slip laws are also competent evidence.[8]

The Statutes at Large, however, is not a convenient tool for legal research. It is arranged strictly in chronological order, so that statutes addressing related topics may be scattered across many volumes. Statutes often repeal or amend earlier laws, and extensive cross-referencing is required to determine what laws are in effect at any given time.

The United States Code is the result of an effort to make finding relevant and effective statutes simpler by reorganizing them by subject matter, and eliminating expired and amended sections. The Code is maintained by the Office of the Law Revision Counsel (LRC) of the U.S. House of Representatives. The LRC determines which statutes in the United States Statutes at Large should be codified, and which existing statutes are affected by amendments or repeals, or have simply expired by their own terms. The LRC updates the Code accordingly.

Because of this codification approach, a single named statute (like the Taft-Hartley Act, or the Embargo Act) may or may not appear in a single place in the Code. Often, complex legislation bundles a series of provisions together as a means of addressing a social or governmental problem; those provisions often fall in different logical areas of the Code.

For example, a bill providing relief for family farms might affect items in Title 7 (Agriculture), Title 26 (Tax), and Title 43 (Public Lands). When the bill is codified, its various provisions might well be placed in different parts of those various Titles. Traces of this process are generally found in the Notes accompanying the "lead section" associated with the popular name, and in cross-reference tables that identify Code sections corresponding to particular Acts of Congress.

Usually the individual sections of a statute are incorporated into the Code exactly as enacted; however, sometimes editorial changes are made by the LRC (for instance, the phrase "the date of enactment of this Act" is replaced by the actual date). Though authorized by statute, these changes do not constitute positive law.[4]

Legal status

The authority for the material in the United States Code comes from its enactment through the legislative process and not from its presentation in the Code. For example, the United States Code inadvertently omitted 12 U.S.C. § 92 for decades, even after Congress amended it in 1982. In its 1993 ruling in U.S. National Bank of Oregon v. Independent Insurance Agents of America, the Supreme Court ruled that §92 was still valid law.[9]

The LRC continues the process of revising, updating, and restating the existing body of statutory law in codified form. As the LRC completes particular areas of the law, it proposes that the Congress enact those titles of the Code as "positive law" (i.e., make it an act of Congress itself rather than a restatement of various acts). If a particular title of the United States Code is enacted into law, the enactment repeals all previous enactments on the subject (including those found in the Statutes at Large), thereby making that title of the United States Code "legal evidence"[10] of the law in force.

By law, those titles of the United States Code that have not been enacted into positive law are "prima facie evidence"[11] of the law in effect. The United States Statutes at Large remains the ultimate authority. If a dispute arises as to the accuracy or completeness of the codification of an unenacted title, the courts will turn to the language in the United States Statutes at Large. Where a title has been enacted into positive law, however, a court may neither permit nor require proof of the underlying original statutes.[12] The distinction between enacted and unenacted titles is largely academic because the Code is nearly always accurate. The United States Code is routinely cited by the Supreme Court and other federal courts without mentioning this theoretical caveat. On a day-to-day basis, very few lawyers cross-reference the Code to the Statutes at Large. Attempting to capitalize on the possibility that the text of the United States Code can differ from the United States Statutes at Large, Bancroft-Whitney for many years published a series of volumes known as United States Code Service (USCS), which used the actual text of the United States Statutes at Large.

Uncodified statutes

Only "general and permanent" laws are codified; the Code does not usually include provisions that apply only to a limited number of people (a private law) or for a limited time, such as most appropriation acts or budget laws, which apply only for a single fiscal year. If these limited provisions are significant, however, they may be printed as "notes" underneath related sections of the Code. The codification is based on the content of the laws, however, not the vehicle by which they are adopted; so, for instance, if an appropriations act contains substantive, permanent legislation (as is sometimes the case), the permanent provisions will be incorporated into the Code even though they were adopted as part of a non-permanent enactment.[13]


The Code is divided into 50 titles (listed below), which deal with broad, logically organized areas of legislation. Titles may optionally be divided into subtitles, parts, subparts, chapters, and subchapters. All titles have sections (represented by a §), as their basic coherent units, though sections are often divided into (from largest to smallest) subsections, paragraphs, subparagraphs, clauses, subclauses, items, and subitems.[14] Congress, by convention, names a particular subdivision of a section according to its largest element. For example, "subsection (c)(3)(B)(iv)" is not a subsection but a clause, namely clause (iv) of subparagraph (B) of paragraph (3) of subsection (c); if the identity of the subsection and paragraph were clear from the context, one would refer to the clause as "subparagraph (B)(iv)."

Not all titles use the same series of subdivisions above the section level, and they may arrange them in different order. For example, in Title 26 (the tax code), the order of subdivision runs:

  • Title
  • (Subtitle)
    • Chapter
    • (Subchapter)
      • Part
      • (Subpart)
        • Section
        • (Subsection)
          • Paragraph
          • (Subparagraph)
            • Clause
            • (Subclause)

In Title 38 (Veteran's Benefits) the order runs Title - Part - Chapter - Subchapter - Section. Put another way, the Title is always the largest division of the Code, and the section the smallest (except for subsections, paragraphs, clauses, etc.), but intermediate levels vary in both number and sequence from Title to Title.

The word "title" in this context is roughly akin to a printed "volume," although many of the larger titles span multiple volumes. Similarly, no particular size or length is associated with other subdivisions; a section might run several pages in print, or just a sentence or two. Some subdivisions within particular titles acquire meaning of their own; for example, it's common for lawyers to refer to a "Chapter 11 bankruptcy" or a "Subchapter S corporation" (often shortened to "S corporation").

According to one legal style manual,[15] a sample citation would be "Privacy Act of 1974, 5 U.S.C. § 552a (2006)", read aloud as "Title five, United States Code, section five fifty-two A" or simply "five USC five fifty-two A."

Treatment of repealed laws

When sections are repealed, their text is deleted and replaced by a note summarizing what used to be there. This is so that lawyers reading old cases can understand what the cases are talking about. As a result, some portions of the Code consist entirely of empty chapters full of historical notes. For example, Title 8, Chapter 7 is labeled "Exclusion of Chinese." This contains historical notes relating to the Chinese Exclusion Act, which is no longer in effect.

Cases of awkward numbering

Sometimes, Congress or the LRC underestimates the future importance of a new government program, and does not reserve enough space in the U.S.C.'s section numbers for future statutes related to that program. Then Congress never gets around to the task of reorganizing and renumbering all the sections in a title, which forces Congressional drafters to resort to awkward methods to shoehorn new laws into the existing section numbering of a title. One method is to add additional letters and numbers to section numbers; another method is to simply jam more subsections under a single section number. In turn, some parts of the U.S.C. feature sections with strange numbers which have so many subsections included that they become very difficult to read. Many examples can be found in the statutes governing the huge Medicare and Medicaid programs, which were originally assigned, respectively, to sections 1395 and 1396 of Title 42. Take for example 42 U.S.C. § 1396u-2(d)(2)(i)(I), which requires state approval of marketing materials for certain organizations.

Versions and history

Early compilations

Early efforts at codifying the Acts of Congress were undertaken by private publishers; these were useful shortcuts for research purposes, but had no official status. Congress undertook an official codification called the Revised Statutes approved June 22, 1874, for the laws in effect as of December 1, 1873. Congress re-enacted a corrected version in 1878. The Revised Statutes were enacted as positive law, but subsequent enactments were not incorporated into the official code, so that over time researchers once again had to delve through many volumes of the Statutes at Large.

According to the preface to the Code, "From 1897 to 1907 a commission was engaged in an effort to codify the great mass of accumulating legislation. The work of the commission involved an expenditure of over $300,000, but was never carried to completion." In the absence of an official code, private publishers once again collected the more recent statutes into unofficial codes. The first edition of the United States Code (published as Statutes at Large Volume 44, Part 1) includes cross-reference tables between the U.S.C. and two of these unofficial codes, United States Compiled Statutes Annotated by West Publishing Co. and Federal Statutes Annotated by Edward Thompson Co.

Official code

During the 1920s, some members of Congress revived the codification project, resulting in the approval of the United States Code by Congress in 1926.[16]

The official version of the Code is published by the LRC as a series of paper volumes. The first edition of the Code was contained in a single bound volume; today, it spans several large volumes. Normally, a new edition of the Code is issued every six years, with annual supplements identifying the changes made by legislation in each session of Congress.

In practice, however, the Code is kept up-to-date on a near-current basis as laws are enacted, and notes are printed in the margins of the slip laws indicating where each section will be codified, if at all. Both the LRC and the GPO offer electronic versions of the Code to the public. The electronic version may be as much as 18 months behind current legislation, but it is the most up to date official version.

Internet versions

A number of other online versions are freely available, such as Cornell's Legal Information Institute.

Annotated codes

Practicing lawyers who can afford them almost always use an annotated version of the U.S. Code from a private company. The two leading annotated versions are the United States Code Annotated, abbreviated as U.S.C.A., and the United States Code Service, abbreviated as U.S.C.S. The U.S.C.A. is published by West (part of Thomson Reuters), and U.S.C.S. is published by LexisNexis (part of Reed Elsevier), which purchased the publication from the Lawyers Co-operative Publishing Co. in 1997 as a result of an antitrust settlement.[17] 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.

Other relevant codifications

The Code generally contains only those Acts of Congress known as public laws (although the notes sometimes contain related Executive Orders and other presidential documents). The Code does not contain statutes known as private laws. It also does not contain statutes that are not considered permanent (such as appropriations); nor does it contain regulations adopted by executive agencies through the rulemaking process set out in the Administrative Procedure Act. These regulations are published chronologically in the Federal Register and are then compiled by topic or subject matter in the Code of Federal Regulations (C.F.R.), which constitutes an additional important source of federal law.

Parts of interest


Titles that have been enacted into positive law are indicated by blue shading below.

Title 1 General Provisions
Title 2 The Congress
Title 3 The President
Title 4 Flag and Seal, Seat of Government, and the States
Title 5 Government Organization and Employees*
Title 6
Surety Bonds (repealed)
(Enacted into positive law by the 80th Congress in 1947; combined into Title 31 when it was enacted into positive law.)
Title 6 Domestic Security
Title 7 Agriculture
Title 8 Aliens and Nationality
Title 9 Arbitration
Title 10 Armed Forces (including the Uniform Code of Military Justice)
Title 11 Bankruptcy
Title 12 Banks and Banking
Title 13 Census
Title 14 Coast Guard
Title 15 Commerce and Trade
Title 16 Conservation
Title 17 Copyrights
Title 18 Crimes and Criminal Procedure*
Title 19 Customs Duties
Title 20 Education
Title 21 Food and Drugs
Title 22 Foreign Relations and Intercourse
Title 23 Highways
Title 24 Hospitals and Asylums
Title 25 Indians
Title 26 Internal Revenue Code
Title 27 Intoxicating Liquors
Title 28 Judiciary and Judicial Procedure
Title 29 Labor
Title 30 Mineral Lands and Mining
Title 31 Money and Finance
Title 32 National Guard
Title 33 Navigation and Navigable Waters
Title 34 Navy (repealed all of Title 34 in 1956 when Navy was moved into Title 10 subtitle C)
Title 35 Patents
Title 36 Patriotic Societies and Observances
Title 37 Pay and Allowances of the Uniformed Services
Title 38 Veterans' Benefits
Title 39 Postal Service
Title 40 Public Buildings, Properties, and Works
Title 41 Public Contracts
Title 42 The Public Health and Welfare
Title 43 Public Lands
Title 44 Public Printing and Documents
Title 45 Railroads
Title 46 Shipping
Title 47 Telegraphs, Telephones, and Radiotelegraphs
Title 48 Territories and Insular Possessions
Title 49 Transportation
(enacted into positive law in stages; Title IV in 1978, Title I in 1983, and Titles II, III, and V-X in 1994)
Title 50 War and National Defense
Title 51 National and Commercial Space Programs

Note: The OLRC has produced a draft version of the codification of Title 35 (subtitles III and IV).

Proposed titles

The Office of Law Revision Counsel has produced draft text for an additional four titles of federal law. The subject matter of these titles exists today in one or several titles. If and when enacted, these titles would actually perform two functions: moving law from one location in the US Code to another, and to convert it into positive law.

Title 52 Voting and Elections
Title 53 Small Business
Title 54 National Park System
Title 55 Environment

* Includes Appendix of provisions not yet enacted into positive law.


  1. ^ Title 1 of the Code as published by the Office of the Law Revision Counsel
  2. ^ Title 34 (Navy) was repealed, but the numbering system was retained. See USC Table of Contents.
  3. ^ Office of the Law Revision Counsel
  4. ^ a b United States Code
  5. ^ Public and Private Laws: About, United States Government Printing Office, http://www.gpoaccess.gov/plaws/about.html, "After the President signs a bill into law, it is delivered to the Office of the Federal Register (OFR), National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) ..." 
  6. ^ Public and Private Laws: About, United States Government Printing Office, http://www.gpoaccess.gov/plaws/about.html, "Public and private laws are prepared and published by the Office of the Federal Register (OFR) ... The database for the current session of Congress is updated when the publication of a slip law is authorized by OFR." 
  7. ^ 1 U.S.C. § 112
  8. ^ 1 U.S.C. § 113
  9. ^ U.S. National Bank of Oregon v. Independent Insurance Agents of America, Inc., 508 U.S. 439, 440 (1993).
  10. ^ "[ ... ] whenever titles of such Code shall have been enacted into positive law the text thereof shall be legal evidence of the laws therein contained, in all the courts of the United States [ ... ]" 1 U.S.C. § 204.
  11. ^ See 1 U.S.C. § 204.
  12. ^ See, e.g., United States v. Zuger, 602 F. Supp. 889, 891 (D. Conn. 1984) ("Where a title has, however, been enacted into positive law, the Code title itself is deemed to constitute conclusive evidence of the law; recourse to other sources is unnecessary and precluded.")
  13. ^ For example, the Department of Defense Appropriations Act of 2006, Pub.L. 109-148, 119 Stat. 2680 (2005) -- a time-specific appropriations act that the President signed into law on December 30, 2005 -- contains in its Division A, Title X the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 ("DTA"). The DTA set out, among other things, permanent provisions governing standards for interrogation of persons in Defense Department custody, prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishment, and procedures for status review of extraterritorial detainees. See id. at div. A, tit. X, §§ 1001-1006, 119 Stat. 2739-44. Notably, DTA section 1002 was printed as a note to 10 U.S.C. § 801; DTA section 1003 was codified as 42 U.S.C. § 2000dd (though the section has not yet been enacted into positive law); and DTA section 1005(e)(1) codified a new subsection (e) of 28 U.S.C. § 2241 (which became positive law upon the DTA's enactment). Congress also enacted a nearly identical version of the DTA as a component of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2006, see Pub.L. 109-163, div. A, tit. XIV, §§ 1401-1406, 119 Stat. 3136, 3474-80 (2006) -- an authorization act that the President signed into law on January 6, 2006 (a week after he signed the original DTA into law). The December 2005 and January 2006 versions of the DTA are generally identical except for certain provisions in the section relating to training of Iraqi security forces (section 1006 of the Dec. '05 DTA and section 1406 of the Jan. '06 DTA). As a result, both the Dec. '05 and Jan. '06 DTAs appear to have made essentially simultaneous and duplicative amendments to the Code and its notes. But see the legislative history notes under 28 U.S.C. § 2241 (to the effect that two subsection (e)s of that statutory section have apparently been enacted). As of 20 November 2011, there has been no litigation challenging the validity of either of the DTA statutes on these grounds.
  14. ^ Bellis MD. (2008). Statutory Structure and Legislative Drafting Conventions: A Primer for Judges. Federal Judicial Center.
  15. ^ The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation 102 (Columbia Law Review Ass'n et al. eds., 18th ed. 2005)
  16. ^ PL 61-440 (June 26, 1926), 44 Stat 777; PL 61-441 (June 26, 1926), 44 Stat 778. http://constitution.org/uslaw/sa/44_statutes_at_large.pdf Last viewed on 03/04/11.
  17. ^ http://www.usdoj.gov/atr/cases/f2200/2225.htm

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