The Code of Laws of the United States of America (variously abbreviated to Code of Laws of the United States, United States Code, U.S. Code, U.S.C., or USC) is the official compilation and codification of the general and permanent federal statutes of the United States. It contains 53 titles (Titles 1–54, excepting Title 53, it being reserved). The main edition is published every six years by the Office of the Law Revision Counsel of the House of Representatives, and cumulative supplements are published annually. The official version of those laws not codified in the United States Code can be found in United States Statutes at Large.

Process

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 Office of the Federal Register (OFR) within the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). After authorization from the OFR, copies are distributed 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. Slip laws are also competent evidence.

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 force at any given time.

The United States 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 in the United States Statutes at Large should be codified, and which existing statutes 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, an Act providing relief for family farms might affect items in Title 7 (Agriculture), Title 26 (Tax), and Title 43 (Public Lands). When the Act 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; however, sometimes editorial changes are made by the LRC (for instance, the phrase “the date of enactment of this Act” is replaced by the actual date). Though authorized by statute, these changes do not constitute positive law.

Legal status

The authority for the material in the United States Code comes from its enactment through the legislative process and not from its presentation in the Code. For example, the United States Code omitted 12 U.S.C. § 92 for decades, apparently because it was thought to have been repealed. In its 1993 ruling in U.S. National Bank of Oregon v. Independent Insurance Agents of America, the Supreme Court ruled that § 92 was still valid law.

By law, those titles of the United States Code that have not been enacted into positive law are “prima facie evidence” of the law in effect. The United States Statutes at Large remains the ultimate authority. If a dispute arises as to the accuracy or completeness of the codification of an unenacted title, the courts will turn to the language in the United States Statutes at Large. In case of a conflict between the text of the Statutes at Large and the text of a provision of the United States Code that has not been enacted as positive law, the text of the Statutes at Large takes precedence.

In contrast, if Congress enacts a particular title (or other component) of the Code into positive law, the enactment repeals all of the previous Acts of Congress from which that title of the Code derives; in their place, Congress gives the title of the Code itself the force of law. This process makes that title of the United States Code “legal evidence” of the law in force. Where a title has been enacted into positive law, a court may neither permit nor require proof of the underlying original Acts of Congress.

The distinction between enacted and unenacted titles is largely academic because the Code is nearly always accurate. The United States Code is routinely cited by the Supreme Court and other federal courts without mentioning this theoretical caveat. On a day-to-day basis, very few lawyers cross-reference the Code to the Statutes at Large. Attempting to capitalize on the possibility that the text of the United States Code can differ from the United States Statutes at Large, Bancroft-Whitney for many years published a series of volumes known as United States Code Service (USCS), which used the actual text of the United States Statutes at Large.

Uncodified statutes

Only “general and permanent” laws are codified in the United States Code; 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 provisions (as is sometimes the case), these provisions will be incorporated into the Code even though they were adopted as part of a non-permanent enactment.

Official code

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 cumulative supplements identifying the changes made by Congress since the last “main edition” was published.

Annotated codes

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 West (part of Thomson Reuters), and U.S.C.S. is published by LexisNexis (part of Reed Elsevier), which purchased the publication from the Lawyers Co-operative Publishing Co. in 1997 as a result of an antitrust settlement.[20] These annotated versions contain notes following each section of the law, which organize and summarize court decisions, law review articles, and other authorities that pertain to the code section, 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, as well as updated secondary materials such as new court decisions on the subject. When an attorney is viewing an annotated code on an online service, such as Westlaw or LexisNexis, all the citations in the annotations are hyperlinked to the referenced court opinions and other documents.