How to Research the U.S. Code Online

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Most research projects require researching both cases and statutes. Some attorneys prefer to delve straight into case law first while others prefer statutory law. Those who begin with statutory research typically pick up a print copy of an annotated code to find the relevant statutes and to read the case annotations noted.

Unfortunately, many law firms are canceling their print subscriptions (if they even had them to begin with) and relying on online sources, whether pay or free. When it comes to using free websites, however, annotated codes are simply not in the picture. That’s the bad news. The good news though is that the free unannotated codes are full-text searchable and easy to use.

This article will discuss where to find and research the United States Code, which is found in three sites:

United States Code (U.S.C.): Three Sites Compared

Although the OLRC site is now the “official” Web site for the United States Code Online, only the OLRC’s print version of the U.S.C. is the “official” document (published every six years). All three Web sites use the online OLRC version of the U.S.C. to create their online searchable databases. While it may seem redundant to have three databases, each is unique in terms of its search and updating features, and also dates of coverage. Thus, deciding which database to search will change from time to time, depending on your needs.

If a researcher wants to use the most up-to-date U.S.C., the OLRC United States Code Online version is a better choice over FDsys and Cornell. The OLRC site states that it updates the U.S.C. throughout a congressional session on an ongoing basis instead of delaying the update process until the end of the session. FDsys and Cornell do not make any representations about their currency. OLRC’s currency information is found by selecting the Currency and Updating tab in the left-hand column of any page on the OLRC site.

For those who want to conduct a retrospective U.S.C. search, the OLRC site or FDsys are the best choices because they date back to the 1994 edition. Cornell only has the current version of the U.S.C.

For those who prefer to jump back and forth between sections (offering the look and feel of browsing a book), the OLRC or Cornell versions will work best.

Sometimes a researcher only knows the “popular” name of an act--e.g., the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO)—rather than the citation or other information. The best choices for those who prefer to browse through lists of popular names would be Cornell’s Table of Popular Names feature (http://www.law.cornell.edu/topn/0) or the OLRC’s Popular Name Tool (http://uscode.house.gov/popularnames/popularnames.htm). For those who prefer to keyword search popular names, the best choice would be FDsys, which offers a Short Title search criteria option of its U.S.C. Collection from the Advanced Search page.

Searching the OLRC United States Code Online

The newly updated ORLC United States Code Online has many helpful search features. The home page (http://uscode.house.gov/browse.xhtml) offers boxes to search the U.S.C. by keyword as well as by title and section number. Underneath the search boxes are a table of contents with links to browse the Code.

You can perform a citation search by using the Jump To boxes on the home page. To do this, leave the keyword search box empty and fill in the title and section number that you want to retrieve. Even if you only know the section number but not the title, you can enter just that number in the Section box to retrieve any section with that number found within the Code. (Note that you cannot do the reverse; searching for just a title number without a section number will retrieve no results.)

Your search results will appear in a pop-up box (unlike keyword searches, where the results appear on a regular page of the site). If your search retrieved more than one section, you can browse through the different sections by using the arrow tools at the top of the screen, as shown in the illustration below. Note that the forward and backward arrows serve a different function than the Next and Previous links underneath them. The arrows allow you to browse through your search results (1 U.S.C. 101, 2 U.S.C. 101, etc.). Next and Previous jump to the next section in the code (1 U.S.C. 101, 1 U.S.C. 102, etc.). You can use these links, along with the Title number and Chapter number links to browse the code.

Caveat: the results in the pop-up box do not always appear in numerical order. For example, although entering 101 into the Section box will retrieve all sections numbered 101, the browsing arrows might jump from 1 U.S.C. 101 to 4 U.S.C. 101, and then back to 3 U.S.C. 101, etc.

A sidebar on the left side of the screen provides links to Currency and Updating information, Classification Tables, the Popular Name Tool, and Other Tables and Tools, as well as resources to help understand various aspects of the Code and the functions of the Office. A Downloads link leads to a page with downloadable files for the most current updates or “release points” of the United States Code. At the bottom of the sidebar are links to FDsys and to Thomas (despite the fact that the link says "Thomas," you are automatically redirected to Congress.gov).

OLRC site also provides a handy Advanced Search Options page at http://uscode.house.gov/advancedSearch.xhtml. Among other options, you can choose which version of the U.S.C. to search back to 1994, which title(s) or section(s) to search within, which fields to search, including text, citation, heading, future amendments, and more. Links in the upper right corner of the page allow the user to specify Preferences such as the number of search results per page, the search results view (context or citation), and the sorting order (code number or relevance).

The OLRC Help Searching the United States Code page (http://uscode.house.gov/static/help.html) explains specific searching and browsing options available on this site.

The OLRC can be searched by Simple Searches, which search the entire text of the code for the best match containing all your search terms. Phrases may be searched by enclosing them in quotation marks.

The help page also describes the operation of the site’s search engine and includes tips for the use of Boolean connectors, wildcards and order of operations. Boolean connectors—AND, OR, NOT—and proximity connectors—NEAR/ (e.g., alien NEAR/3 homeland) ADJ (adjacent; e.g., alien ADJ homeland), BEFORE/ (e.g., alien BEFORE/6 homeland)—may be employed to refine the search. (The "and" operator by default has precedence over "or," but you can override the default order by using parentheses.)

The OLRC offers two types of wildcard searches; one uses question marks and the other uses an asterisk. Each question mark wildcard symbol represents one character. For example typing int??city into the search box indicates a search for any word that begins with int, is followed by any two characters, and then ends with city. The search results might include the words intercity or intracity, or both words. An asterisk wildcard indicates an unlimited number of characters. For example, a search for child* would return search results that include child, child’s, children, childish, etc. Other helpful hints explain case-sensitive searches, locating executive orders and presidential proclamations, document browser help, and special keyboard navigation functions.

If researchers do not want to conduct a keyword search of the entire U.S.C., they can also keyword search within a particular Title, Section, etc., or a combination of any of the available criteria. For example, in the next illustration, the number 42 was entered into the Title search box, restricting that search to Title 42 only.

Some other useful features of the OLRC include:

  • The ability to download portions of the Code (by Title, Section, etc.) by selecting Downloads from the home page side bar;
  • Various classification tables (discussed in more detail below) to help researchers find sections of the Code that have been recently affected by newly enacted laws or to translate specific citations of Public Laws and Statutes At Large into their current U.S.C. citation; and
  • The ability to find sections containing references to a specific title and section using the Advanced Search (although this is a very imprecise type of search).

Updating the OLRC United States Code Online

Although a previous resource known as USCprelim used to provide preliminary release updates, the OLRC no longer provides this resource. The OLRC’s Currency and Updating page (use this URL: http://uscode.house.gov/currency/currency.shtml) now states that “If the section has been affected by any laws enacted after [the currency] date, those laws will appear in a list of ‘Pending Updates.’ If there are no pending updates listed, the section is current as shown.” According to the OLRC United States Code Online’s Currency and Updating page, (http://uscode.house.gov/currency/currency.shtml), as of August 28, 2013, for example, all Titles in the United States Code Online (http://uscode.house.gov/) are current through Pub. L. 113-31. The currency information on this page is updated as the code is updated. One can also consult the U.S.C. classification tables to be sure of the latest laws that affect the Code.

Near the top-left corner of every section of the OLRC version of the U.S.C. is a date and a statement that the text contains those laws in effect as of the date shown. See the illustration below. If the section has been affected by any laws enacted after that date, those laws will appear in a list of "Pending Updates." If there are no pending updates listed, the section is current as shown.

When present, the list of pending updates provides the public law numbers of each law affecting the section in some way—either the text of the section, a statutory note set out under the section, or a table of contents preceding the section. Following the list of pending updates is a View Details link that provides more specific information about how each new law has affected the section.

The Classification Tables (http://linkon.in/Hmnmnx) can also be used to find the latest laws affecting the Code. The Classification Tables indicate which sections of the Code have been affected by recently enacted laws. They show where the newly enacted laws and amendments will eventually appear in the U.S.C. The user can view the tables either in Public Law order or in U.S. Code order. The text of public laws listed as Pending Updates or appearing in the Classification Tables can be found in a number of sources, such as the Government Printing Office’s FDSys (Federal Digital System) or Congress.gov.

Searching the Cornell LII U.S.C. Database

Cornell LII (http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text) has made some improvements to its recent site redesign. The link to the Table of Popular Names has returned to the main page of the U.S.C. database (see the next illustration), along with a link to the Parallel Table of Authorities.

A researcher can browse a numerical list of Titles, perform a Quick search by citation (by Title and Section), or enter keywords/phrases into the Search US Code search box (on the right-hand side of the page). In the redesigned version, the Keyword search of a specific Title has been eliminated, unfortunately. (But you can conduct that type of search at OLRC United States Code Online site, as described earlier.)

How to Keyword/Phrase Search Cornell LII’s U.S.C.

Cornell’s U.S.C. database (http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text) does not offer as sophisticated Boolean and proximity searching as the OLRC and FDsys sites do. To keyword search Cornell’s U.S.C. database, use the Boolean connectors AND, OR, NOT (AND is the default, so there is no need to type it in—simply leave spaces between words). Phrase searching is allowed (surround phrases by quotation marks).

How to Navigate through Cornell LII’s U.S.C. Results

After you select a Title to browse (or after you have conducted a keyword/phrase search), the currency of the Title is shown (e.g., “Current through Pub. L. 113-31”). This is the same currency as the OLRC United States Code Online. There is a link to the Public Laws of the Current Congress that goes to the most recent Public Laws pages on Thomas. Selecting the Updates tab will show recent classification updates for the section you are viewing, as well as the date for the most recent update of which LII is aware. An empty table under this tab indicates that there are no relevant changes in the classification tables. Selecting the Notes tab will provide general background notes about the Title you are reading (Title 14, for example).

Updating the Cornell LII U.S.C. Database

After you click the Updates tab, the Sections that have Updates Pending will be displayed. If you want to read the change, then click on the Public Law link or the Statutes at Large link.

Linking to CFR Parallel Authorities from the Cornell LII U.S.C. Database

One of the most useful features of Cornell LII’s U.S.C. database (http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/) is the ability to automatically link to the rules and regulations in the CFR that relate to the U.S.C. section being viewed. This feature is activated by clicking on the Authorities (CFR) tab noted on the preceding illustration. If there are any related authorities, they will be displayed at the bottom of the screen.

Note that the U.S. Code title and section numbers and the CFR parallel authority title and section numbers do not always match up as in the above illustration, but they are, nevertheless, related. Sometimes you will see a completely different Title number.

Searching the FDsys United States Code Database

FDsys researchers can keyword or phrase search through all of FDsys’s Collections from the search box on FDsys’s home page (this is called a “Simple” search) at http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/search/home.action or use the Advanced at http://linkon.in/y2uMZC. Researchers can also browse Collections or retrieve a document by citation via links available on the home page.

Whether you are performing a simple or Advanced Search, you can create simple or complex queries. We will highlight some of the search queries available at FDsys, but for more detailed information and examples, see the FDsys Help page (http://linkon.in/I6uqKF). According to the documentation at FDsys, its simple queries are similar to “typical search engine such as Google” because FDsys uses the same Boolean connectors (AND, OR, -) and phrase searching (using quotation marks) as Google. There are some differences, though: (1) FDsys researchers can use the Boolean connector AND or leave a space in between words (but Google scolds you if you type AND in between words), (2) Boolean connectors are case insensitive at FDsys (while the OR Boolean connector must be in uppercase at Google), (3) FDsys researchers can also use NOT instead of the minus ( - ) sign--they are interchangeable at FDsys (but not at Google), and (4) FDsys allows for additional types of complex queries not found at Google such as:

  • Proximity connectors (near/#, adj, before/#)
    • adj specifies that one word is adjacent to another
    • before/# ( e.g., handgun before/3 protection) specifies that the first word is within whatever number of words that you select of the second word and that the first word must precede the second word
    • near/# (e.g., handgun near/10 protection) specifies that the first word is within whatever number of words that you select of the second word and in any order
  • Wildcards, which are indicated by the:
    • question mark symbol (?) to replace one character before, within, or after a search term need example.
    • asterisk symbol ( * ) to replace one or more characters before, within, or after a search term.
    • Typing int*city into the search box indicates a search for any word that begins with int, is followed by any two characters, and then ends with city. The search results might include the words intercity or intracity, or both words.

If we will run a search for “water pollution,” for example, the search results page would show links to U.S.C. sections from different years. If you only want the most recent version of the Code displayed, click the Show only recent editions link.

We can further refine our search by clicking on links in the left-hand column, such as Government Author, Organization, and Date Published. By clicking the See more link in the Dates Published section, you can see results back to 1994.

Clicking the More information link, found with each result, displays Metadata. Metadata refers to information about the document. For example, the Metadata for our “water pollution” search results informs us that this Title of the U.S.C. (33) is not positive law, that the section’s Public Law number is Pub. L. 92-500, §2, its date is October 18, 1972, and its Statutes at Large citation is 86 Stat. 828.

This article was adapted from the book, “Internet Legal Research on a Budget” by Carole Levitt and Judy Davis (ABA LPD 2014). Reprinted with permission of the American Bar Association. All rights reserved.

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