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Federal Laws: Finding Laws

Finding laws

This page will take you through the steps involved in finding a federal law.

Congress considers proposed legislation and passes bills which, when signed by the President, become federal law. The approach you use to find a federal law depends on whether you want the bill exactly as passed or as it stands today with any subsequent amendments. Listed below are the most common approaches to finding a particular law.

Finding a law exactly as passed

New laws are published chronologically as they are signed into law. As each law is passed, it is assigned a Public Law number, for example, P.L. 96-200. This P.L. number is the official name of the law. New laws are first published as separate pamphlets known as "slip laws." Later, they are compiled into a permanent set, United States Statutes at Large (1951-2011 currently available online through FDsys). A commercially published version of these two sources is U.S. Code Congressional and Administrative News. Due to the time lag of publishing the new laws, searching FDsys or Congress.gov on the Internet is the best way to find laws within a day of passage.

In most cases, you won’t know the official name of a law with its P.L. number, but rather the “popular name”. The popular name is usually the law's title, for example, “Shipping Act of 1984”. The Statutes has an index to popular names which will give a cross-reference to the P.L. number.

Finding a law as it exists today

Once a law is passed, it is “codified”, that is, its sections are pulled out and compiled by subject into the existing body of law. This subject arrangement of all the federal laws currently in force is the United States Code. An annotated and commercially published version of this source is the United States Code Service. Both sources are indexed by subject and popular name. The indexes in both sources will refer not to a page number, but rather to broad subject areas called “titles” and subdivisions called “parts”. Thus, the designation 16§668 will be to “Title 16, part 668”.  Both sources are also available online through FDsys. ProQuest Congressional provides access to the full text of the U.S. Code. You may search for a particular title and part of the Code or by keyword. Searching in the "Legislative Histories" file will bring up the Public Law number. It will also bring up the text of the law for the newer laws (1988-).

To see other laws similar to a particular law, use the index to find the title and part of that law. All other laws on that subject will be under that title. Larger titles will be divided into “chapters” and then into “parts”. In these cases it may be necessary to only consult the laws under a chapter to find all the pertinent laws.  In the online databases, search results are arranged by title and part or by relevance so similar laws will be listed together.

Once a particular law has been found in the Code, the text of the law will be given and any amendments will be incorporated into the text. At the end of the text, a citation to the original law and any subsequent amendments will be given. For example, “Oct. 23, 1972, P.L. 92-535, 86 Stat 1064” means that this law was passed October 23, 1972, that its official name is P.L. 92-535, and that it may be found in the United States Statutes at Large  in volume 86 on page 1064. Citations to amendments will follow the citation to the original law.

Once you have located a law, always make sure that you have the latest version of it. Laws in the U.S. Code  are updated by annual supplements. Laws in the U.S. Code Service  are updated by annual pocket supplements and by the monthly “Cumulative Later Case and Statutory Service and Advance Service” volumes. Laws on the online version are updated regularly.

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