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Circuit Riders: Basic Legal Research

A guide for non-law librarians

Federal Laws

United States Congress building.


The United States Congress enacts federal statutes that are arranged by subject in the United States Code

This page on Federal Laws covers how federal statutes are published and how to find, read, and update them in print and using free websites.


The Federal Legislative Process

Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution gives the United States Congress (Senate & House of Representatives) the authority to make laws necessary to carry out the powers of the federal government.

The federal legislative process is detailed in a series of videos, with transcripts, on the CONGRESS.GOV website. To play an individual video, click on that step on The Legislative Process wheel or the link to the rightglossary of legislative terms is also provided. 

Wheel on the website showing the steps in the legislative process.

This federal legislative process produces three key legal resources:

1. Bills introduced in Congress;

2. Public Laws, which are the bills passed by Congress; and

3. Federal statutes, organized by subject in the United States Code.

For example, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 was passed by Congress as House Bill H.R 1350. The full text of bills introduced in Congress from 1993 forward are available on the Legislation page of the CONGRESS.GOV website and the Government Publishing Office’s (GPO’s) govinfo website.

Public Laws
Once Congress passed House Bill 1350, it was assigned Public Law number 108-446 and published chronologically in the United States Statutes at LargeThe numbers 108-446 tell us that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act was the 446th law passed during the 108th Congress

Public Laws are accessible through CONGRESS.GOV and the Government Publishing Office’s (GPO’s) govinfo website. Digitized volumes of the United States Statutes at Large from 1951 forward are also available via govinfo.

Federal Statutes
An Act like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, passed as House Bill H.R. 1350 and published chronologically as Public Law number 108-446, may enact new federal laws or amend existing ones or both. Those laws are organized by subject (or codified) by titles and sections and published in the United States CodeThe Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (or IDEIA) amended the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which is codified in Title 20 of the United States Code in sections 1400 through 1482.

The United States Code

Volumes of the United States Code.


Federal statutes are arranged or codified by subject and published in the official print United States Code by title and section.

For example, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) established the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) in Title 20, section 1402 of the United States Code (20 U.S.C. § 1402). See Anatomy of a Federal Statute below.  

The official print United States Code
 includes the text of each statute in its 54 Titles, along with a statutory history line and notes on amendments to the statute. It is not annotated ( see Annotated Codes below). 
The law Library maintains a copy of the current and previous versions of the official print United States Code. The print United States Code is revised every six (6) years and updated between revised editions by annual hardbound cumulative supplements I through V. The current United States Code is the 2018 edition.

The United States Code is available for free on the Government Publishing Office's (GPO's) govinfo website and the United States Code website of the U.S. House of Representative's Office of Law Revision Counsel.

Anatomy of a Federal Statute


Section and name of the statute.

§ 1402. Office of Special Education Programs

Subsections of section 1402.

(a) Establishment

There shall be, within the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services in the Department of Education, an Office of Special Education Programs, which shall be the principal agency in the Department for administering and carrying out this chapter and other programs and activities concerning the education of children with disabilities.

(b) Director

The Office established under subsection (a) shall be headed by a Director who shall be selected by the Secretary and shall report directly to the Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services.

(c) Voluntary and uncompensated services

Notwithstanding section 1342 of Title 31, the Secretary is authorized to accept voluntary and uncompensated services in furtherance of the purposes of this chapter.

History line for section 1402 in chronological order. Last amended in 2004 by Pub. L. No. 108-446.

(Pub.L. 91-230, Title VI, § 603, as added Pub.L. 108-446, Title I, § 101, Dec. 3, 2004, 118 Stat. 2659.)


U.S. Annotated Codes

Annotated versions of the United States Code add resources after the text of each statute to help you with further research on the topic addressed by that statute. Annotations ‚Äčto individual statutes include references to related federal regulations, secondary sources (encyclopedia, books, articles), and summaries and citations to federal cases applying and interpreting that statute.

The Law Library maintains print copies of the two annotated versions of  the United States Code—
the United States Code Annotated (
U.S.C.A.), published by West/Thomson Reuters, and the United States Code Service (U.S.C.S.), published by Lexis.

       Volumes of the U.S. Code Annotated (U.S.C.A.), published by West. Volumes of the U.S. Code Service (U.S.C.S.), published by LexisNexis.

These annotated versions of the United States Code (U.S.C.) are available online through Westlaw (U.S.C.A.) and Lexis (U.S.C.S.) Some public libraries in South Carolina provide access to Westlaw (U.S.C.A.) for their patrons, while some South Carolina colleges and universities, including the University of South Carolina, provide access to Nexis Uni (U.S.C.S.).

The U.S.C.A. and U.S.C.S. also include annotated versions of the U.S. Constitution and federal court rules 

Citing a Federal Statute

The proper citation to a federal statute includes that statute’s title (20), the abbreviated name of the code (U.S.C.), the section symbol §, and section number (1402). The parenthetical indicating the year the source was published is optional.

For example, the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) statute referenced above would be cited as:




[The blue bullets in the citation above represent spaces.]