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Federal Law Citations

Understanding Federal Law Citations

Laws that have passed Congress are published in three places.

  • The United States Statutes at Large contains the original text of laws and arranges them chronologically in the order that they were enacted by Congress.
  • The United States Code categorizes Public Laws by subject. Broad subjects are called Titles, narrower aspects of those subjects are called Chapters, and narrower parts of Chapters are called Sections. The Code contains the original text of the law as passed by Congress plus any updates or amendments.
  • Much government information is available online, including US statutes and the US Code. The easiest place to find law information online is the Government Printing Office's Catalog of Government Publications. See the Finding the Texts of Federal Laws box on this page for guidelines about how to use the GPO's catalog site.
  • The Library of Congress Law Library states that most citations to laws are to the Statutes at Large, but you may also see citations to the US Code. The citations work like this:
    • Statutes at Large
      • Pub L. 112-100, 126 STAT 129
        • The first session of Congress and subsequent sessions are identified by consecutive numbers. The 2011-2012 session is the 112th. For a table showing some session numbers and years, go to http://thomas.loc.gov/home/faqlist.html#10
        • This citation refers to a Public Law from the 112th session of Congress, and it was the 100th law passed in that session. This law was published in the United States Statutes at Large volume 126, page 129.
    • United States Code
      • 20 U.S.C. § 51 (2010)
        • This citation refers to Title 20 of the United States Code, section 51, as it appears in the 2010 edition of the Code.

Finding the Texts of State Laws

Go to the web site of the State in question. For Colorado go to www.colorado.gov. Navigate through the web site until you find information about laws, and you should see a link to the state's code, which is a subject-based listing of all of the state's law.

On Colorado's web site, scroll towards the bottom of the screen until you see the links labeled "Colorado Revised Statutes." Click on the section header. Next choose "Click here to access the 2011 Colorado Revised Satutes." Click on the folder next to "Colorado Revised Statutes" on the left-hand menu. Finally, click on the lowest folder labeled "Colorado Revised Statutes" to open the subject links to the Statutes. Click on the subject that you think will contain the law(s) you seek. For instance, clicking on Title 23, Postsecondary Education allows me to choose "Community Colleges," and then "Article 60 - Community Colleges and Occupational Education." Moving over to the right-hand menu, I can click on 23-60-204 "Financing" and then read the text of the Statute dealing with community colleges financing in Colorado.

Finding the Texts of Federal Laws

The easiest way to find the text of a law is to do an online search of the Government Printing Office's Catalog of Government Publications.

You will search for the terms you know about the law, such as the name of the act or the Public Law number.

Name of the Law

  • Type the main words from the law's title into the "Enter Word/Phrase" box
  • Choose "Title Keywords" from the drop-down box menu 
  • Click the go button
  • Example:
    • the Patriot Act
      • type in (with the quotation marks) "USA patriot act" in the word/phrase box
      • choose "Title Keywords
      • for the "Years" box midway down the screen, enter "2001" if you only want to see the text of the original law; enter 2001 to 2012 if you want to see the original law plus any changes


Public Law Number

  • Type entire words for public and for law
  • Enter the hyphenated six-digit law number in the same box
  • Click the go button
  • Example:
    • Pub L. 112-100
      • Type in (with the quotation marks) "public law 112-100"
      • For the version you want to read, click on the hyperlinked web address under "Internet Access"
      • In this case, you will see the text of the St. Croix River Crossing Project Authorization Act
        
        

Finding the Texts of Local Laws

Image of Pike's Peak by Jonathon Thorne

Local laws include ordinances of villages, cities, and towns. For unicorporated areas, local laws may fall under the County. As with state laws, the easiest place to look for local laws is on the city or county web site. Colorado Springs' site is at www.springsgov.com. The city's laws can be found using the left-hand link labeled "City Charter/City Code."

As with Colorado's state laws, you will get a subject-based directory to sort through to find the law(s) you seek. If I want to see laws related to the management of Pikes Peak, click first on "Municipal Enterprises", then on "Pikes Peak - America's Mountain, and finally on "Enterprise Status; Accountability; Contracts."

image: Creative Commons by Jonathon Thorne

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