United States Code

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The United States Code (U.S.C.) is a compilation and codification of the general and permanent federal law of the United States.

Codification process Edit

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 Archivist of the United States, and duplicate copies are issued in pamphlet form 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.

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 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 should be codified, and which existing laws 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. Sometimes, however, editorial changes are made (for instance, the phrase "the date of enactment of this Act" is replaced by the actual date).

By law, the Code is "prima facie evidence" of the law in effect. The Statutes at Large remains the ultimate authority. If a dispute arises as to the accuracy or completeness of the codification, the courts will turn to the language in the United States Statutes at Large.

In addition, the LRC continues the process of revising, updating, and restating the existing body of statutory law in codified form, and as it completes particular areas of the law it proposes to enact those titles of the Code as "positive law". If enacted into law, these titles of the Code repeal all previous enactments on the subject (including those found in the Statutes at Large) and adopt the Code itself as a statute, thereby making these titles "legal evidence" of the law in force.

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.[1]

Organization Edit

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 smallest basic coherent unit, though sections are often divided into subsections, paragraphs, and clauses. 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 K" partnership.

A sample citation would be 5 U.S.C. § 552a, the Privacy Act of 1974. A lawyer would read that out loud as "Title five, United States Code, section five hundred fifty-two A."

When sections are repealed, their text is deleted and replaced by a note summarizing what used to be there. This is necessary 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.

Versions and history Edit

Early compilationsEdit

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."

Official codeEdit

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

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. A number of other online versions are freely available, including those at Findlaw and at Cornell's Legal Information Institute (see External Links below).

Annotated codesEdit

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 Thomson West, and U.S.C.S. is published by LexisNexis (part of Reed Elsevier), although the current edition was originated by the Lawyers Co-operative Publishing Co. See Wexis. 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, all the citations in the annotations are hyperlinked to the referenced opinions and documents.

Other relevant codifications Edit

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, 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 Edit

The Uniform Code of Military Justice is contained in Title 10, Chapter 47. It defines infractions such as going AWOL and contains the popularly-known phrase, "Conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman."

Title 11 is the Bankruptcy Code. Some of the different types of bankruptcy are commonly referred to simply by their chapter numbers: Chapter 7, Chapter 11, Chapter 13.

Title 18 deals with federal crimes.

Title 26 is also known as the Internal Revenue Code. Much of Title 26 is administered and enforced by the Internal Revenue Service and is one of the largest portions of the Code.

Title 42 is a lengthy title which includes statutes governing several large federal government programs like Social Security and Medicare. One provision, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, is the basis for a wide range of federal civil rights actions in federal courts; it is the codification of the Civil Rights Act of 1871. Section 1983 cases include suits alleging use of excessive force by police and First Amendment suits against public schools to maintain church/state separation. Section 1983 itself is quite short; the annotations (i.e., the digests and summaries of court decisions interpreting it), however, span several volumes.


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)
(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)
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
Title 50 War and National Defense

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


  1. ^ For example, the {{subst:#ifexist:Department of Defense Appropriations Act of 2006|[[Department of Defense Appropriations Act of 2006|]]|[[Wikipedia: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 Title X the {{subst:#ifexist:Detainee Treatment Act|Detainee Treatment Act of 2005|Detainee Treatment Act of 2005}}, which sets 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 §§ 1002, 1003, 1005.

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