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Mastering Federal Statutory Research

Mastering Statutory Research is a guide designed to demystify the world of statutes, providing readers with essential tools and knowledge needed to conduct effective legal research.

Official Codes

Code = Subject

A revised code is the publication of the public statutes of a jurisdiction in a fixed subject of topical arrangement.  Each subject is usually referred to as a title.  The federal government uses fifty three titles, chapters and then sections (§), subsections, paragraphs and clause.  They are not always consistent.  When sections are repealed, the text is deleted and replaced with a note which summarizes the deleted section.

At the federal level the revised code is the United States Code (USC) is maintained by the ‘Office of the Law Revision Counsel,’ of the U.S. House of Representatives.  It is a great website.  The USC contains “general and permanent” laws.  It does not contain laws affecting a limited number of people or are in effect for a limited time period (appropriation acts).

Always read the notes.  Every now and then someone asks about 4 USC 1: “The flag of the United States shall be thirteen horizontal stripes, alternate red and white; and the union of the flag shall be forty-eight stars, white in a blue field.”  Turns out that the remaining two stars were added by executive order (you can see this in the Notes to 4 USC 1). The authority is given in 4 USC 2 (one star per state).

There are instances where statues are printed in the ‘notes section’ following after a ‘code section.’ Pub.L. 107-297 was published in USC as a note.  In other words, it was published not as a title and section of USC, but as a note following 28 USC 1610; as part of the Historical and Statutory Notes.  The question is whether this was a law, since it was not part of sec. 1610 but the Historical and Statutory Notes.

Within the Privacy Act itself, Congress stated that section 3 was an amendment to Title V, which governs federal administrative agencies. See 88 Stat. at 2178. Thus, section 3 added a new section to Title V and was codified as 5 U.S.C. § 552a. Id. at 2177 . Because Congress made no such statement about section 7 of the Privacy Act, the revisor of the U.S.Code placed section 7 in an “Historical and Statutory” note following 5 U.S.C. § 552a. See 5 U.S.C. § 552a (note). The district court mistakenly placed great weight on this fact. The district court noted that, although section 7 was part of the Privacy Act that “was passed into law as Public Law 93-579,” the fact that section 7 “was never codified, and appears only in the ‘Historical and Statutory Notes' section of the United States Code,” made section 7 a mere “historical footnote to the Privacy Act of 1974 [which] Congress has never reflected any intention of [codifying].” The district court apparently believed that public laws have less “weight” as laws than laws which have been codified. The reverse is true: “the Code cannot prevail over the Statutes at Large when the two are inconsistent.” United States v. Welden, 377 U.S. 95, 98 n. 4, 84 S.Ct. 1082, 1085 n. 4, 12 L.Ed.2d 152 (1964) (internal quotations omitted).  Schwier v. Cox, 340 F.3d 1284