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Andrew Winston, Senior Legal Reference Librarian, Law Library of Congress
Barbara Bavis, Bibliographic and Research Instruction Librarian, Law Library of Congress
Robert Brammer, Senior Legal Information Specialist, Law Library of Congress
Janeen Williams, Senior Legal Reference Librarian, Law Library of Congress
Kellee Bonnell, Legal Reference Librarian, Law Library of Congress
Note: This guide is adapted from a blog post published on the Law Library's blog, In Custodia Legis and a research guide on the Law Library's website.
Created: June 28, 2018
Last Updated: March 30, 2023
Statutes, also known as acts, are laws passed by a legislature. Federal statutes are the laws passed by Congress, usually with the approval of the President. Federal statutes are published in three formats:
We will review each step. Before delving into the publication process; however, a brief review of some statutory terminology may be helpful. A researcher will generally be dealing with two forms of law–public law and private law. Public laws, which are the most common form of law passed by Congress, “affect society as a whole.” Private laws, on the other hand, only “affect an individual, family, or small group.” Additionally, while public laws are usually codified into the United States Code, private laws are not because the United States Code is a codification of only the “general and permanent laws of the United States.”
Slip laws are individually paginated pamphlets, each containing a single statute. Session laws are bound collections of the slip laws enacted in a session of a legislature. Codes are subject compilations of statutes currently in effect, as amended.
You can find federal slip laws, session laws, and codified laws in print and electronic sources. You can search for statutes using a citation or popular name, or using the subject of the statute – for a quick reference guide to resources for finding statutes, see the "Quick Reference" page of this guide.
For information about tracing a federal statute, visit the page on tracing federal legislation on the Law Library’s companion guide, Compiling a Federal Legislative History: A Beginner’s Guide.