The United States Code (U.S.C.) is the general and permanent federal Law of the United States.
Once a Public Law is enacted, its operative provisions are usually incorporated into the U.S. Code. There are a few exceptions (in which case one must consult the Public Law directly), but they are rare.
The Code is divided into 50 titles, 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 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. 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, 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 a , the Privacy Act of 1974. A lawyer would read that out loud as "Title five, United States Code, section five hundred and fifty-two A."
This example would suggest that popular names of legislation (like the Taft-Hartley Act, or the Oh! Grab Me Act) map directly to coherent subdivisions of the Code, but that is not usually the case. Legislation typically 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 passed into law and subsequently codified, its various provisions might well be unbundled and housed in different parts of those various Titles. Traces of this unbundling are generally found in the Notes accompanying the "lead section" associated with the popular name.
The official version of the Code is maintained by the Office of the Law Revision Counsel of the U.S. House of Representatives. The LRC offers an electronic version to the public in two different formats. Each Title in this version is updated annually on a rolling basis, roughly (though not always) in order by Title number. Depending on where the LRC is in the annual update cycle, this 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.
However, practicing lawyers who can afford them almost always use an annotated version 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 Westlaw (part of Thomson), and the U.S.C.S. is published by LexisNexis (part of Reed Elsevier). See Wexis.
An annotated version contains annotations following each statute which summarize relevant court decisions, law review articles, and uncodified provisions that are part of the Public Laws. When an attorney is viewing an annotated code on an online service, all the citations in the annotations are hyperlinked to the referenced opinions and documents.
Other relevant codifications
Sometimes Congress is either too congested or too lazy to write out all the details of how a new law shall be implemented. So it often grants broad powers to the executive branch to promulgate administrative regulations through a special rulemaking process set out in the Administrative Procedure Act.
The regulations are initially published in the Federal Register and compiled into the Code of Federal Regulations (C.F.R.). Once integrated into the C.F.R., they carry the force of law.
Amendments and repeals
Amendments are usually indicated through the annual publication of "pocket part" pamphlets that are inserted into the back of volumes of annotated versions of the U.S.C., and an annotation will show the history of amendments to any given section. When a pamphlet gets too thick, a new volume is sent out.
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.
However, this can be problematic because some laws, like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, have been completely repealed, but their remnants remain in the Code as empty chapters full of historical notes. In Title 8, Chapter 7 is labeled "Exclusion of Chinese." Of the fifteen chapters in Title 8, Chapter 7 is the only chapter whose heading refers to a specific nationality or ethnic group.
Parts of interest
Title 26 of the U.S. Code is also known as the Internal Revenue Code. It defines the Internal Revenue Service and is one of the largest portions of the Code, along with Title 42, which includes provisions governing several large federal government programs like Social Security and Medicare.
Some of the different types of bankruptcy defined in Title 11 (the Bankruptcy Code), are commonly referred to simply by their chapter numbers: Chapter 7, Chapter 11, Chapter 13.
A handful of U.S.C. sections are so often cited that every American lawyer has heard of them.
By far, the most famous section in the Code is 42 U.S.C. § 1983. It is the basis for virtually all federal civil rights actions. Many different types of lawsuits are brought in federal court under that section; they include everything from excessive force lawsuits against police to First Amendment lawsuits against public schools to maintain church/state separation. The section itself is quite short, but in an annotated version of the U.S.C., its annotations span several volumes.
Titles of the U.S.C.
Last updated: 05-10-2005 11:56:10
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04