Searching the U.S. Code Without a Citation

It may not be a good idea to rely completely on free web versions of the United States Code because they are not necessarily accurate or completely up-to-date and they do not provide annotations. Annotations are summaries of cases and articles that discuss that specific statute. Cases are extremely important in understanding statutes because the statutes themselves are often vague or ambiguous. You might begin your federal statute research in a reliable free electronic version of the U.S. Code, such as that available from the Government Printing Office or Cornell Law School web site. Before you consider your research complete, however, you should go to a library that has an updated, annotated edition of the United States Code.
Once you get to the library, you will find that it subscribes to one or more of the three print editions of the United States Code. Those three versions are the official United States Code (published by the Government Printing Office), the United States Code Service (published by LexisNexis), and the United States Code Annotated (published by Thomson Reuters Westlaw). If you have a choice, it is probably best to use either the United States Code Service (“USCS”) or the United States Code Annotated (“USCA”), because both of these are updated much more often than the official United States Code. They also provide case annotations, which will help you find cases that interpret the statutes relating to your legal issue.
Here are the steps for using the USCA or the USCS when you don't have a statute citation:

  • Look up words related to your problem in the subject index.
  • Look up the code sections cited after each of the words you’ve looked up.
  • Each of those code sections will appear in a hardbound volume. The hardbound volume may be several years old, so you need to update it. The first step in updating a statute is to look for a soft pamphlet in the back of the hardbound volume. This soft pamphlet is called a pocket part.
  • If you find a pocket part, look for your section number in it. If you find your section in the pocket part, read for changes made to the section since the hardbound volume was published. If your section number is not in the pocket part, this means that the information you found in the hardbound volume is accurate and up-to-date.
  • If you don’t find a pocket part, look for a soft supplemental pamphlet sitting next to the hard volume on the shelf. If you find a supplemental pamphlet, check it for changes to your section.
  • After you check the pocket part or supplemental pamphlet, you still have to look for pamphlets at the end of the code called “Advance Sheets” or “Advanced Legislative Service.” These pamphlets are published monthly to show any changes made since the pocket parts to each code volume were published. The advance sheets are updates to the entire code, not just the one volume. They are usually shelved right before the index volumes.

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