Overview of U.S. Laws
You don't need to read this overview before reading the laws, but here's an explanation of how U.S. laws are numbered, how they go into the U.S. Code, and what the Code of Federal Regulations is.
We'll discover later that you usually don't want to read the original law as passed by Congress, but it's worth knowing what they look like and how they're numbered.
The laws themselves start out as bills introduced in the House or Senate, passed by both the House and Senate and approved by the President, at which point they become law. (If you want to know all about that process, read How our laws are made.)
Once it becomes law, the law is identified in (potentially) three ways, as you can see if you look at an example, the Radio Free Afghanistan Act (PDF, 2 pp.).
Name. First, the law often (but not always) has a name (“short title”), assigned by Congress within the text of the law. The first section of this law says, “This Act may be cited as the ‘Radio Free Afghanistan Act.’ ” Often, the year is included in the name, but in this particular case Congress didn't explicitly name it the Radio Free Afghanistan Act of 2002.
Public Law number. Next, the law is given a Public Law number. In this case it's Public Law 107-148, often abbreviated Pub. L. 107-148 (there is such a thing as a private law, thus “Pub.” rather than just “P.”). In this example, it's the 148th public law of the 107th session of Congress. Each session runs two years, and the 107th session covers 2001 and 2002.
Statutes at Large. Finally, the law is printed in the Statutes at Large. In this case, it's cited as 116 Stat. 64, meaning it was published in volume 116 of the Statutes at Large, beginning on page 64. This particular form of citation is generally used only in legal contexts.
Original bill. In the left margin of the published law, it mentions which bill was passed in order to become this law — in this example, H.R. 2998, a bill that originated in the House of Representatives (Senate bills are numbered like S. 1234). This is of historical interest, but the law should not be cited as such. Referring to a bill number normally means you're referring to a proposed law, not one that actually is law. And if you refer to a bill number, be aware that the numbering restarts in each session of Congress. There's only one Pub.L. 107-148, but there have been lots of H.R. 2998's.
Some laws exist only in their Public Law form. They basically stand alone. See Pub. L. 107-2 (PDF, 1 p.) for an example. It simply renames a post office, and that's the end of that.
But most laws have some ongoing significance, so the text of the law is incorporated into the U.S. Code, which organizes laws by topic and makes it easier to deal with amendments. The left margin of the published law indicates how each section was numbered in the U.S. Code — 22 USC 6215, in the earlier example — as well as containing brief notes to make it easy to scan the printed text.
Titles. The U.S. Code consists of several Titles. For example, Title 11 deals with bankruptcy law and Title 17 deals with copyrights. Each title is generally organized into sub-units such as subtitles, chapters, subchapters, and parts, although the particular “units” used vary from title to title.
Sections. Ultimately, a title consists of sections, which are cited by giving the title and section number: 22 USC 6215 refers to section 6215 in Title 22 of the U.S. Code (Title 22 deals with foreign relations). Section numbers are unique throughout a Title, so the other subdivisions — subtitles, chapters, or whatever — can be ignored for citation purposes.
A section is sometimes long enough that it's broken into an outline-like structure. Then you can, of course, refer to a particular subsection, like 15 USC 1453(a)(3)(A)(ii).
Occasionally, a section is inserted between two existing sections. This is sometimes accomplished by renumbering, but when that would be confusing, lettered suffixes can be used. Thus, for example, the Metric Conversion Act had to go between sections 205 and 206 in Title 15, so its sections were numbered 205a, 205b, etc. So, 15 USC 205a is section 205a in Title 15, while 15 USC 205(a) is a subsection of section 205 in Title 15.
Finally, some sections have notes, so you'll occasionally see a reference like “23 USC 109 note,” or an appendix, like “23 USC 109 app.”
Why read the U.S. Code instead of “the real thing” in the original Public Law? Consider what happens when a law is amended. Look at Public Law 107-8 (PDF, 1 p.) for a good but simple example. Its first section begins,
Section 149 of title I of division C of Public Law 105-277, as amended by Public Law 106-5 and Public Law 106-70, is amended...
and it goes on to list the changes. (Some lengthy public laws are divided into Titles, or Divisions and Titles, like the Roman numeral “Title I” reference here.)
This illustrates the problem with reading the public laws themselves: It's a lot of work to figure out what the law actually says. In this example, the amendments in Pub. L. 107-8 make little sense in isolation. And there's no point in reading the original text in Pub. L. 105-277, because it's out of date. You must assemble the combination of, in this case, four laws.
The U.S. Code, on the other hand, contains the ultimate, up-to-date version of the law. Generally, the U.S. Code is the best version to read. Even references to the law by name — The Metric Conversion Act of 1975 — normally mean “including any amendments,” so they're referring to the version in the current U.S. Code (plus any amendments made since the version you're reading), not the version originally passed by Congress.
Besides laws passed by Congress and approved by the President, there are federal regulations enacted by federal agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission. These appear in the Code of Federal Regulations, which is organized much the same way as the U.S. Code.
Such regulations implement laws passed by Congress, in cases where it doesn't make sense for Congress to get involved in minor little details. Instead, Congress delegates the details to federal agencies, which write regulations implementing the law. This also makes things easier to update: If Congress included every minor little detail in the law, then it would require a new bill to be passed by both Houses and signed by the President just to make a trivial change, while the regulations can be updated more easily, within the confines established by the law authorizing the regulations.
CFR references look much like USC references: 16 CFR 500.10 is section 500.10 in Title 16 of the Code of Federal Regulations. Typically, as in this example, a Title is divided into Parts, and 500.10 is a section with Part 500. Note that it's OK to refer to Part 500 of Title 16, written “16 CFR Part 500,” but a section within that part is referred to as “Section 500.10,” never referring to the “10” alone.
(Go to the index of metric laws.)
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This page prepared by USMA member Gary Brown.
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Updated: 2005-12-06 (original 2002-08-18)