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Finding Statutes

This research guide introduces basic concepts of statutory research, and provides introductory information on how to locate the statutes of U.S. federal and state jurisdictions.

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Introduction

A statute is a written law enacted by a legislature. The statutes you will deal with most frequently in United States law are federal and state statutes. There are also local (i.e., city or county) statutes, usually called ordinances.

When a bill is passed by the legislature, a statute is issued in a form called a slip law. The slip laws of a session of the legislature are collected in a chronological publication known as session laws. Finally, the laws are arranged by subject in a code. Codes are kept up-to-date in print by pocket parts and supplements. There are both federal and state versions of slip laws, session laws, and codes, though they may go by different names in different jurisdictions.

If you have a citation to a statute, you can use the citation information to quickly locate it in print or electronically. If you don't have a citation, however, you may be able to find a statute by its title (e.g., "Affordable Care Act") by using a popular name table for your jurisdiction. Otherwise, you can use the subject index to the jurisdiction's code; if you're using a print code, the index is nearly always found in the last volume(s). Lexis and Westlaw may even provide electronic versions of a popular name table or index for your jurisdiction. It is also possible to search (e.g., terms and connectors searching) the full text of federal or state statutes online using Lexis or Westlaw. See our Terms and Connectors (Boolean) Searching Tutorial for more information.

Our Statutory Research Tutorial has additional information about federal and state statutes.

Federal Statutes

Federal laws are issued by Congress in slip law form immediately after they become law, and are made available on the web, Lexis, and Westlaw immediately after they are passed by Congress.

After the slip laws are issued, the laws of each session of Congress are printed together in volumes called "session laws." The official version of the federal session laws is called the United States Statutes at Large. Another version of the session laws is a series called the United States Code Congressional and Administrative News (U.S.C.C.A.N.)

Finally, federal statutes are officially "codified" (meaning they are compiled and arranged by subject) in the United States Code (U.S.C.). The U.S. Code also comes in two annotated versions called the United States Code Service (U.S.C.S.), and the United States Code Annotated (U.S.C.A.). The unofficial versions come out much more quickly than the official versions, and contain notes, references and certain other features which are designed to make them easier to use. However, in scholarly and court documents, you must cite to the official version, provided it has the current text of the statute. Refer to your Bluebook for further citation information.

State Statutes

States also issue slip laws, session laws, and codes in print. These publications may go by different names in different jurisdictions. For example, below are the session laws and codes for the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia. Note that some states have both an official version and unofficial code. Others have only one version.

Abbreviation What it Means
D.C. Stat. District of Columbia Session Law Service (session laws)
D.C. Code  West's District of Columbia Code (code)
D.C. Code (LexisNexis [year]) Lexis District of Columbia Code (code)
Md. Laws Laws of Maryland (session laws)
Md. Laws Maryland [subject] Code Annotated (code)
Va. Acts Acts of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia (session laws)
Va. Code Ann. Code of Virginia Annotated (code)

State laws are available on Lexis and Westlaw shortly after they are passed by the state legislature. In addition, most states have recent session laws and the state codes on the web. For example, you can locate them through the Legal Information Institute's listing of state laws by jurisdiction. However, this approach is best if you already have either a citation or some exact language from the statute. See our individual state research guides for more information on a particular state's statutes. 

Citations & Sources

Federal 

Publication Title Call Number of Print Digital Access for Georgetown Law
Public Law (Pub. L.)   Congress.gov, govinfo
Also printed in the United States Statutes at Large (Stat.)
United States Statutes at Large (Stat.)
(official session laws)
KF50 .U5 Reading Room, Area 8 on map Westlaw, Lexis, Bloomberg Law, ProQuest Congressional, HeinOnline, LLMC Digital, govinfo
United States Code Congressional and Administrative News (U.S.C.C.A.N.)
(unofficial session laws) 
KF48 .U54 Reading Room, Area 7 on map Westlaw
United States Code (U.S.C.) 
(official code)
KF62 2012 .A2 Reading Room, Area 3 on map HeinOnline, Bloomberg Law, Westlaw (unannotated), Office of the Law Revision Counsel (including Popular Name Tool)
United States Code Annotated (U.S.C.A.)
(unofficial code)
KF62 1927 .A3 Reading Room, Area  4 on map Westlaw (including Index and Popular Name Table)
United States Code Service (U.S.C.S.)
(unofficial code)
KF62 1972 .U5 Reading Room, Area 5 on map Lexis (including Index and Popular Name Table)

More information is available in our federal legislative history research guide.

States

See our individual state research guides for information on each state's statutes. For complete listings of citations and sources of statutes and laws for each state, refer to your Bluebook

 

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Statutory Research Tutorial

Running time: 4:02 minutes

Created/updated: January 2019
Last reviewed: January 2019

When you begin a video and hover your cursor over the video window, you are offered several options:

  1. Closed captioning
  2. Search (searches the captions, can take you directly to the point in the video where a specific word is mentioned)
  3. Playback speed (faster or slower)
  4. Full screen mode

Legislative History Research

Running time: 1:39 minutes

Created/updated: August 2017
Last reviewed: May 2018

Update History

Revised 10/07 (SK)
Updated 08/10 (TV) 
Updated 04/15 (AG)
Updated 08/20 (CMC)