Skip to Main Content
Statutes are typically the place to begin research of primary legal sources. Subject only to constitutional control, they authorize promulgation of administrative regulations and can overturn or modify court decisions that themselves are most often concerned not only with the application of common law principles but also with matters of statutory interpretation.
Legislation at both federal and state levels of government is generally published in three forms - (1) as individually issued and separately paginated "slip laws", the first official text of statutes enacted by the legislative body of a jurisdiction (2) as session laws, the collected slip laws of a sequentially designated legislative session, issued in a consecutively paginated, chronological order of enactment and (3) as statutory codes, detailed subject compilations of session laws having a public and permanent nature, thus excluding merely private as opposed to public laws and time-limited statutes such as appropriations legislation.
Slip laws, slowly and not widely published or distributed in print, are the most current statutory updates when available online. Session laws are useful for tracing the historical evolution of an area of law. Codes are the most frequently consulted statutory source, conveniently organizing by topic all the public session laws, including amendments, that are in force within a jurisdiction at a given time. Commercially published annotated codes are particularly valuable for the editorial enhancements they provide, interpretive case notes and other references to the text of the less timely, unannotated official codes.
Federal - United States Statutes at Large - Dating from 1789 and published at the conclusion of each session of Congress, this is the official source for the Public (and Private) session laws of the United States Congress.
a. United States Code Congressional and Administrative News (USCCAN) - Published monthly by the West Group and cumulated in bound annual volumes (under earlier titles) since 1941, this advance federal session law service has provided the official consecutive pagination of the more slowly disseminated Statutes at Large since that information was first included with individually issued slip laws in 1975.
b. United States Code Service Advance - A monthly pamphlet service (no annual cumulations) offering the LexisNexis print version of recent Congressional Public Laws before they appear in the Statutes at Large.
Federal - United States Code (USC) - Published by the Office of the Law Revision Counsel of the U.S. House of Representatives since 1926, the unannotated U.S. Code is a broad 50 title subject arrangement of the statutes of a general and permanent nature enacted by the U.S. Congress. Titles reenacted as positive law supersede the Statutes at Large as the authoritative text of federal legislation.
a. United States Code Annotated (USCA) - Available from West Group, the USCA provides not only the unofficial text of the United States Code and references to its Public Law sources but also selected, section by section, topically arranged case law annotations that summarize published judicial treatment of the Code. Additional annotations include references to related administrative law materials and to secondary law sources such as legal periodical articles, texts and treatises and the American Law Reports.
b. United States Code Service (USCS) - The USCS is the annotated, unofficial version of the U.S. Code currently published by LexisNexis. The USCS offers its own selection of topically organized case annotations, related administrative law citations and secondary source references keyed to the sections of the U.S. Code.
State - Check Bluebook Table T. 1.
Federal - GPO Access provides directly and via THOMAS free PDF file coverage of Public and Private Laws, generally including Statutes at Large citations, beginning with the 104th Congress (1995). Browsable and index-searchable facsimile image files of the Statutes at Large from 1789 to 1875 are offered by the American Memory project of the U.S. Library of Congress.
a. US-PL, a Westlaw database, offers unofficial, full text searchable Public Law coverage for the current Congress. US-PL-OLD includes previous Congresses dating from 1973. USCCAN-PL (Westlaw) also offers full text coverage from 1973 to date. Earlier coverage, from 1789 to 1972, is available in PDF format from the Westlaw full-text searchable Statutes at Large database - US-STATLRG.
b. PUBLAW, the LexisNexis database for Congressional session laws, provides access to Public Laws that dates from 1988.
c. The Legislative Histories, Bills & Laws module of LexisNexis Congressional provides PDF coverage of the official Statutes at Large for all past sessions of Congresses since 1789. Searching by popular name, synopsis term or citation is available. Retrieval by citation from this PDF database - by Statutes at Large volume and page number or (until 1956) Congress number and Statutes at Large chapter number - is also afforded by LexisNexis. Use "Get a Document" to access the citation search template on LexisNexis. Sample full-text boolean search.
d. The HeinOnline U.S. Statutes at Large Library currently offers full-text PDF coverage of Statutes at Large volumes 1-118 (1789-2004). Browsing access by Volume, Popular Name, Indian Treaties and Other Treaties is provided. Included among the available search fields are Public law number, public law official title and the first 15 pages of full text.
e. LLMC Digital offers citation ("Title Volume Page") and full-text searchability options for volumes 1 (1789) through 115 (2001) of the Statutes at Large.
State - LexisNexis and Westlaw include individual and combined state legislative service databases accessible both directly and as components of legal topical databases that include federal as well as state statutes. State legislative services are also commercially available as separately searchable components of the individual state code databases on LexisNexis Academic.
a. Although the GPO printed U.S. Code remains the final authoritative version, there are also two federal government sources of online versions of the Code. The U.S. House of Representatives provides searchable coverage of the 2000, 1994 and 1988 editions. The 2000 edition, currently updated through Supplement IV (2004) is available as a PDF download. The GPO Access version of the U.S. Code, including the 2000 and 1994 editions, is browsable as well as searchable but is not offered in PDF. More about the U.S. Code.
b. LII: U.S. Code - The Legal Information Institute of Cornell Law School offers free, updated Web access to the current House of Representatives unannotated U.S. Code databases via its own search engine.
a. The online (Thomson/West) United States Code Annotated (USCA) includes the selected case summary annotations, "Notes of Decisions", appearing in the printed USCA. However, via the Westlaw KeyCite service it enhances the print version by providing links to all Westlaw-available full-text documents that refer to a given code section - administrative law sources, law review articles, etc., as well as "additional cases" - often only a small fraction of which appear in the print USCA. The U.S. Constitution is incorporated in the USCA and is not otherwise available as a separate database on Westlaw.
USCA annual archival databases on Westlaw date from 1990. Variably dated retrospective USCA access is also provided by a link from the Graphical Statutes display mode of a current USCA section to its prior versions.
b. The online (LexisNexis) United States Code Service (USCS) duplicates the code section annotation coverage of the print USCS and includes full-text links if the citing documents are available on LexisNexis. The LexisNexis Shepard's citation service, however, must be accessed to retrieve all caselaw references to a U.S. Code section that are available on LexisNexis.
The U.S. Constitution has its own database on LexisNexis and is also searchable in a combined database with the USCS and PUBLAW. Like the U.S. Code it receives comprehensive LexisNexis caselaw coverage by Shepard's.
Annual archival USCS databases on LexisNexis date from 1992.
c. Findlaw - This independent division of West Group provides Google LawCrawler® powered, free Web access to the current edition of the unannotated U.S. Code.
Statutes are most easily located if the researcher has a citation to a source publication. For a session law of Congress the official source is the Statutes at Large, the citation format for which is: Volume no. Stat. Page no., e.g., 104 Stat. 327. An official citation to a Congressional session law also includes a Public Law number specifying its place in the chronological order of passage among the statutes of the Congress that enacted it, e.g., P.L. 101-336 - the 336th Public Law enacted by the 101st Congress.
United States Code citations (to whatever source - USC, USCA or USCS) are specified by title, abbreviated code name and section number; e.g., 20 USC 1080 is a citation to Title 20 (Education), § 1080 of the official U.S. Code.
Citation format information and templates that enable direct retrieval of federal and state statutes without prior selection of a statutory database are supplied by both LexisNexis and Westlaw. The LexisNexis Customer Service "Knowledge Base" also provides a table of sample state code and session law citation formats for all states and supplementary tables for California, Louisiana, Maryland, New York and Texas.
(For illustrations of citation formats, see Learning LexisNexis and Westlaw Quick Reference Guide: Retrieving Statutes on Westlaw.)
All print sources of the U.S. Code provide access to federal statutes by means of alphabetically arranged popular name tables. Popular names are generally based on an official name designation at the very beginning of a slip law, typically a "short title" that is part of the full citation to an individual statute. Each name is followed by Public Law and Statutes at Large citations and at least a partial list of the Code titles and sections to which the statute has been classified.
The popular name database for federal statutes on LexisNexis (USNAME) provides links from the names to their general classification locations in the U.S. Code. Click the "Table of Contents" Search button after accessing the USNAME database and then enter a popular name in the query box. The Westlaw (USCA-POP) counterpart database provide links only to new sections added to the U.S. Code by a federal statute. When the USCA or a state code database is accessed on Westlaw, a popular name table link automatically appears above the search box. On LexisNexis Congressional, federal session laws are retrievable by popular name from the Statutes at Large and Public Laws databases located in the Legislative Histories, Bills & Laws module.
Shepard's Acts and Cases by Popular Names: Federal and State provides a notable print source table of statute popular names that offers citations to major session laws and, unless too widely scattered, to the code locations of their most significant sections.
Popular names are also searchable in legal periodical indexes, where citations as well as access to articles devoted to specific statutes are often given. LexisNexis and Westlaw provide fielded searching for statutes by popular name in the legal periodical index databases they offer.
Sometimes search for a particular statute begins with an incomplete citation, commonly a popular name and a specific section or other subdivision of a law that could be a reference to a part of that statute either in terms of its slip and session law divisional organization or in terms of the location in the code in which it has been classified by subject. Statute classification tables are helpful here because, unlike popular name tables, they exhaustively list in session law citation order and section-by-section sequence the correspondences between the parts of a session law and the places in the code where they have been incorporated, either as new sections or as amendments to existing ones.
The Statutes at Large Table is the classification table that accompanies all print versions of the U.S. Code. It can also be found online on Westlaw (USCA-TABLES) and LexisNexis (USSALT). United States Code Classification Tables is the designation of the table as it appears on a U.S. House of Representatives website that provides current updating and maintains retrospective coverage commencing with the 105th Congress (1997).
Many print state statutory codes include classification tables. They are not available for state codes online.
When the names or citations of specific statutes are unknown, code database word searches limited to fields (Westlaw) or segments (LexisNexis) that designate particular components of an annotated statute are likely to retrieve fewer irrelevant documents than unrestricted terms and connectors or natural language queries.
All online sources of the U.S. Code afford full text-linked table of contents (TOC) browsing of its 50 Titles and chapter and section subdivisions. State codes are TOC browsable on LexisNexis and Westlaw and at many state legislative Web sites.
The alphabetical subject indexes that accompany statutory codes provide a final alternative to unrestricted full text searching for laws when a researcher has no initial specific statute information. Differing indexes accompany the official U.S. Code, the USCA and the USCS. Westlaw is the only source of online indexes, providing access either directly - USCA-IDX or XX (state postal abbrev.)-ST-IDX - or via links on code database search pages.
For the jurisdiction it covers, each Westlaw statutory code database search page provides links to the code citation templates, code table of contents and subject index, the statute popular name table and also to KeyCite enhanced "50 state surveys" for comparative statutory research. (A helpful free-access alternative to the "50 state surveys" feature is offered by the National Conference of State Legislatures.)
In LexisNexis statutory code databases the "Advanced Search" option offers both full-text and table of contents only searchability and also provides links to a browsable code table of contents.
Official statutory codes - A new edition of the official U.S. Code is issued every six years by the United States Government Printing Office. Annual cumulative supplements between successive editions and the Statutes at Large are issued too slowly to provide useful updating. Official state session law publications are also slow to become available as updates to current editions of state codes.
a. Bound volume pocket parts provide annual cumulative updating for both the USCA and USCS.
b. USCA pamphlet (West Group) and USCS Cumulative Later Case and Statutory Service (LexisNexis) provide irregular - monthly to quarterly - updates to USCA and USCS pocket parts, respectively.
c. USCCAN, USCS Advance, State legislative service pamphlets (ALS) - These monthly session law update pamphlets include code section update tables, the most timely print format means of updating federal and state statutes.
a. Codes and session laws - All online versions of the U.S. Code are regularly updated to include recent session laws too new to be incorporated in print version updates. This information generally accompanies each section of the Code and on LexisNexis and Westlaw includes the latest numbered Public Law and date covered.
A direct search of the Westlaw Congressional session law database, US-PL, can retrieve Public Laws in their first available format as editorially unenhanced slip laws during the week or more before they are linked to the U.S. Code. Conduct a Citation field query of the form: ci(slip & search terms).
Sorted in U.S. Code order as well as by Public Law No. and nearly as current as LexisNexis and Westlaw Congressional session law databases, the United States Code Classification Tables provide a valuable tool for identifying very recent additions and amendments to the U.S. Code.
b. Proposed legislation - For the current Congress, separate bill summary & status and bill text databases on Thomas can be word/phrase (or index) searched by date for proposed additions or amendments to the U.S. Code. Congressional bills are also word/phrase searchable on GPOAccess.
The commercial sources, Westlaw, LexisNexis and LexisNexis Congressional afford keyword searching of Congressional bills in both bill full text and bill tracking databases. Westlaw retrieved code sections that may be affected by proposed legislation are provided yellow flagged "pending legislation" links to the relevant bills. Proposed legislation that merely "references" a section is also linked but not flagged.
In BLTRCK, the current Congress bill tracking database on LexisNexis,very recently enacted Public Laws can be located by a combined synopsis and status segment search: synopsis(search terms) and status(became public). This search also works in the bill tracking by keyword database on LexisNexis Congressional.
The updating of federal and state statutes generally involves more than a search for the results of legislative action - new code sections, amendments and repeals. To establish the current validity of an existing statute the caselaw of the courts of the jurisdiction in which it governs must also be searched for supreme court constitutionality rulings and other holdings affecting its "good law" status. LexisNexis Shepard's and KeyCite on Westlaw are the competing commercial citator services that in addition to tracing legislative changes also offer researchers assistance in determining this equally important judicial history of statutory provisions. The caselaw citations they provide, accompanied when applicable by interpretive judicial treatment signals, are both more timely than the case annotations to USCA and USCS and more numerous, extending to the published citing decisions of all federal and state jurisdictions. Most of these cases, though far removed from the validation history of a statute, may provide support, if only by the context in which they cite it, for persuasive legal argument as to the statute's application or intent.
Shepard's employs word (LexisNexis) and letter (print format) editorial analysis codes assigned by its editors to indicate legislative and judicial treatment history for statutes. Online searches can be custom restricted by treatment analyses, by the federal and state jurisdictions of the cases that have cited a given section and by date. Also, retrieved citations are helpfully grouped in order by (1) exact search matches (2) section range cites and (3) subsection cites. To narrow results the LexisNexis FOCUS feature can be employed to full-text search the retrieved citing cases.
Although online Shepard's provides comprehensive, up-to-date caselaw coverage of current statutory codes and constitutions, it offers no coverage of uncodified statutes and superseded code editions and constitutions, which can only be Shepardized in print. Online and in print, the "Amended" and "Repealed" legislative treatment ("legislative history") information provided by Shepard's is neither comprehensive nor consistently timely enough to warrant its use for statutory updating.
(For Shepard's editorial analysis codes table, see How to Shepardize.)
KeyCite uses red and yellow flags to signal treatment history for statutes. It offers comprehensive and up-to-date caselaw and secondary source coverage of current federal and state statutory codes and constitutions but like Shepard's online, KeyCite provides no coverage of uncodified statutes or superseded codes and constitutions. Among other features, a "Citing References" link from a retrieved code section or constitutional provision provides a "Limit KeyCite Display" option that enables a custom restriction of displayed citing references by: "Notes of Decisions" (from West Group print annotated codes), LOCATE (analogous to LexisNexis FOCUS), Jurisdiction, Date and Document Type.
Like the case annotations to Thomson/West annotated codes, KeyCite statute searches retrieve only section-level specific citation lists. Thus for any one of the more than 40 different subsections of 8 USC § 1158 for which Shepard's returns individual citation lists, say, KeyCite searches will retrieve the same 8000+ citing references as a search for § 1158. The LOCATE function also fails to differentiate subsections from sections but if employed for full-document word searching in conjunction with other Keycite limits, it can to some extent mitigate this problem.
(For KeyCite illustrations, see Using KeyCite in westlaw.com.)
LexisNexis (Search Advisor) and Westlaw (Key Search) provide case and secondary source database guided search options that allow research of statutory law issues by broad categories of judicial treatment. Query results can be limited by specific statute search terms.
Back to Top