US Bills and Laws
Bills are found at congress.gov/#.
You can search bills by title, subject, sponsor/cosponsor, committee, or actions. Each bill has its own page. An overview includes a tracker so you can see what the next step is for that bill. The page also provides a summary, the bill’s full text, actions, its official and short titles, any amendments made to it, cosponsors, committees, and related bills.
Bills can also be seen at govtrack.us. Sometimes their listings are updated before Congress’. You can get email alerts by the bill or the member at congress.gov/rss#get-alerts.
Bill numbers are not one continuous list. Every two-year term of Congress is numbered. The 1st Congress served 1789-1791. The 117th Congress was seated January 3, 2021. Bill numbers start at 1 for each house of Congress in every term. Bills often have a year in their names to help people find the correct term, and to avoid confusion with similarly titled bills in earlier terms.
There are four types of congressional legislation:
but they are all informally called bills.
Bills begin with S or HR, depending on whether they are introduced in the Senate or House.
Joint resolutions begin with SJRes or HJRes. These bills are used for continuing or emergency appropriations or for proposing amendments to the Constitution.
The internal rules of the House or Senate are made by simple resolutions. These begin with SRes or HRes. They are not signed by the President and do not become laws. The Senate may use a simple resolution to advise the president on foreign policy.
Rules that apply to both houses of Congress are made by concurrent resolutions. These begin with HConRes or SConRes. They are not signed by the president and do not become laws. But if something doesn’t need to be a law, a concurring resolution can be used to avoid an expected veto.
The annual budget is also made by concurrent resolution.
Citations to House or Senate committee reports look like this:
H Rept No 96-1396, 96th Cong, 1st Sess, 35 (1980)
H Rept means House Report. The 96th Congress was 1979-80. Terms are divided into sessions. Committee and hearing reports are at congress.gov.
If you can’t find a bill number from the 103rd Congress to the present, try calling LEGIS (202) 225-1772. The offices of your elected officers can also help. The Capitol switchboard can connect you. For the Senate it’s (202) 224-3121. For the House it’s (202) 225-3121.
The Senate’s home page is senate.gov.
The House’s home page is house.gov.
Senate rules & manual:
House rules & manual:
Questions about House procedure or rules? Try:
clerkweb @ mail.house.gov
HouseLive @ mail.house.gov
The House and Senate keep calendars.
You can link to these and to all US government pages from govinfo.gov.
The Congressional Record is the official record of everything Congress does. You can look up the legislative history of any law here. Bills, speeches, and the actions on the floor are found here. It’s available on congress.gov and govinfo.gov. The Annals of Congress, Register of Debates, and Congressional Globe preceded it. They’re at memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lawhome.html
LOC, the Library of Congress at loc.gov, is vast and fascinating. It includes the world’s largest law library.
The Congressional Research Service (CRS), is also part of LOC. These researchers provide Congress with reports to help them draft bills. CRS Reports, sometimes partisan but always highly informative, are at crsreports.congress.gov or crs.gov. Classified reports are not available to the public.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) gathers economic data for Congress to help the budgeting process. Its annual Economic and Budget Outlook, updated in midyear, and its An Analysis of the President’s Budgetary Proposals can be useful. cbo.gov
The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) is the US government’s audit institution. It investigates all matters related to the use of public funds. It also issues legal opinions and decisions on these. gao.gov
The Justice Manual, formerly called the US Attorneys’ Manual, has the current attorney general’s guidelines for federal law enforcement: justice.gov/jm/.
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) maintains an archive of records and personal papers relating to the US government. Its Center for Legislative Archives can help with research, especially on older laws. archives.gov
The Government Printing Office (GPO) makes a lot of information available at govinfo.gov.
Another research resource is aallnet.org, the American Association of Law Libraries.
How to Read a Statutory Citation
The official consolidated laws of the United States, the United States Code, can be found at uscode.house.gov. These laws are coded by subject matter with a title for general subjects and a chapter for each specific subject.
You may see any of three codes for United States laws:
USC=United States Code
USCA=United States Code Annotated
USCS=United States Code Service
The USC is the official one, but the government publishes at its own pace. The USCA and USCS are commercially published and are updated more often. They also contain helpful annotations: perhaps a judicial interpretation of the statute, and cross-references to law journals or to related federal regulations. But remember only the text of the statute itself is the statute.
52 USC Ch 103
This is not a statute, it’s a chapter of statutes. You will sometimes see the chapter cited, although you can find a law without the chapter number. 52 is the Title. Titles are divided into chapters. USC Chapter 103 of Title 52 is Enforcement of Voting Rights, all the US statutes that enforce voting rights.
52 USC 10311
This is a statute, named: Impairment of voting rights of persons holding current registration. 52 is the title, USC is the United States Code, and 10311 is the law’s number, called the section. You may also see the briefer sec or a vertical double S (§) for section. If a long statute is encoded in multiple sections the first section will be cited, followed by et seq.
You’ll sometimes see a year in parentheses at the end, although you can find the law without the year. (Oddly, this isn’t the year the law was enacted but the year that book was published.) The USC is the codified law. But before the laws passed in Congress each session are codified, they’re numbered and called session laws.
The Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, Pub L No 90-351, Stat 197
This is a session law citation. Pub L No 90-351 means Public Law Number 90-351. The first half of the first number is the session of Congress (here it’s the 90th Congress, sitting 1967-69). The Stat number tells you where it’s published, Statutes, and the page number, 197. USCCAN is another place where a federal law may have been published.
You may also see the session law cited if it’s a private law (these are not coded), or if it has since been repealed, or if the statute’ provisions are not all together in the US Code but are scattered around, or (rarely) if there’s some difference between the codified statute and the law as passed.
Names and first paragraphs of bills can be informative or misleading. Don’t pay too much attention to a bill’s calling itself “The Great Act That Will Solve All Your Problems.” It’s promotional. Early US laws had no names, just numbers.
Some famous laws are known by the names of the senators or representatives who wrote them, but they also have ordinary names
The Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) is the regulatory equivalent of the US Code. It’s online as the e-cfr at ecfr.gov. The Federal Register is the official newspaper of the executive agencies. Regulations, rules, and related materials are found here. It’s at archives.gov/federal-register.
The US provides a lot of data online. usa.gov consolidates 20,000 government websites. The president’s site is whitehouse.gov. Data collected by the executive branch is at data.gov. The Census Bureau’s data is at census.gov. SCOTUS.gov and SCOTUSblog.gov are official sites for the Supreme Court (aka SCOTUS).
The GPO publishes all kinds of things our taxes paid government to study. Because we already paid for them, most of these are free.
Information about government can be found at govspot.com. This includes such references as congress.org, where you can do things like sign up to have your elected officers’ votes e-mailed to you. GovSpot also facilitates searching for information on multiple states with a directory.
Your State’s Constitution and Laws
Every state has a website. They are often but not always in the form “alabama.gov.” All state, county and city websites are at statelocalgov.net.
The University of Maryland is compiling the texts of all state constitutions in our history with amendments, at John Joseph Wallis, NBER/University of Maryland State Constitution Project, www.stateconstitutions.umd.edu.
The Georgetown Law Library has a series of research guides to resources for state laws and constitutions at guides.ll.georgetown.edu/home. Harvard Law School has a survey of state laws at guides.library.harvard.edu/statelaw. And the University of South Carolina has 50 Weeks, 50 Constitutions at ij.org/sc_blog/what-is-50weeks50constitutions/.
How to Read a Caselaw Citation
Citizens United v FEC, 558 US 310 (2010)
The case’s title is in italics. The name of the party filing the case is listed before the v. In a civil suit, they are the plaintiffs or complainants. V means versus, or against. Some courts just use against now, for greater accessibility. The name of the party being filed against is listed after the v. They are called the defendants, or the respondents. The above citation says a party named Citizens United sued the Federal Elections Commission (FEC).
Sometimes a plaintiff or respondent is more than one party. All will be listed in the heading at the top left of every paper filed, but when citing only the first party’s name is generally used. Famous cases are often shortened to the plaintiff’s name.
The next part of the citation tells you where to find the opinion that decided the case. Official books of cases are called reporters. There are reporters for each level of court. Citations abbreviate reporters’ titles. The volume number will appear first, then the reporter’s title, then the first page of the listing discussing the case. The number in parentheses is the year the case was decided.
Since the case above was decided by the Supreme Court, it’s in the United States Reports, shortened to US. The number 558 is the volume. The number 310 is the first page of the case listing. The number in parentheses is the year the Supreme Court decided the case. The Supreme Court decided Citizens United in 2010.
Seeing double? If there are two numbers after US the first one is where the case listing starts, the second is where the quote being discussed can be found.
You can Google cases by the citation, but if a case is controversial you might have to scroll through screens of articles and books about it first. The public can’t access the systems designed for the legal profession (LEXIS and Westlaw) but several law schools also post caselaw. You may find a favorite among them. Adding the school’s name can shorten a search.
ReReSa does not use periods in citations, and when the United States is a party abbreviates to US instead of spelling it out. Courts hate this. So do academics. Don’t do as we do. ReReSa can afford to be annoying when we believe in something like simplifying citation.
There are other sources of information about a decision. When you see a citation that says SCt it’s a Supreme Court decision, but the citation isn’t for the US Reports, the official reporter. It’s for one of two other unofficial series of law books on Supreme Court decisions. These are called parallel or unofficial citations. It’s the same case, the same decision, reported in a different series of books. The two unofficial series are the Supreme Court Reporter (S Ct) and the Lawyer’s Edition (L Ed).
Court reporters aren’t bound every year, so sometimes you’ll see an underline in a citation where the page should be listed, meaning the case will be in the upcoming record book.
Doe v Mukasey, 549 F3d 861 (2nd Cir Dec 15, 2008)
Very few cases originate at the Supreme Court. If you see the letter F instead of US, the citation is about a case in a federal court. In the citation above, F3d means the third series of the Federal Reporter, the official reporter for the inferior US courts. 549 is still the volume, and 861 is still the page where the opinion begins. Some district court decisions are in Federal Rules of Decisions (FRD).
When a case was decided below the Supreme Court, the abbreviated name of the court will appear in the parentheses before the year. The case above lists the Second Circuit Court, the appellate court that covers Connecticut, New York, and Vermont. If a case started at a district court, then went to a circuit court, then the Supreme Court, you may see a whole string of citations but more often the Supreme Court will be the only one cited.
When the full date is given instead of just the year, either the case was settled out of court or the decision cited is not that court’s final decision on the case itself but a slip op, a decision the court had to make on a particular point of law during the case. Doe v Mukasey was settled out of court on Dec 15, 2008.
States have their own records and their citations vary but the party names are always first in the same order, the reporter, volume and page are always listed and the date that court decided is always at the end.
A published decision usually includes the court’s opinion, its reasons for deciding as it did. If the court is a panel rather than a single judge the decision may not be unanimous: there may be a majority opinion and a dissenting opinion. A concurring opinion agrees with most but not all of the decision or the majority opinion.
And just when you think you’ve got it, they hit you with a Cranch. Until 1817 the Supreme Court’s opinions were privately published, then we gave a string of official Supreme Court Reporters, who write down what happens in Court, exclusive rights to publish and sell its opinions. Mr. Dallas, Mr. Cranch, Mr. Wheaton…In Wheaton v Peters, 8 Peters 591 (1834) SCOTUS had to stop Wheaton from copyrighting their opinions! The US started binding the Court’s opinions under the generic title US Reports in 1874, but we still include the old Reporter numbers in citations from that era. Christine Luchok Fallon does today what Cranch used to do in the Court but without the immortality.
A list of all abbreviations used in the United States can be found in The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation or the ALWD Citation Manual.
More information on various types of statutory and caselaw citations is in the Law Library of Congress, at loc.gov/law/help/statutes.php.
Fighting corruption effectively requires understanding the legal system you have to work with. Governance is making, executing and enforcing laws systematically. Where there’s anarchy the weak have no guaranteed recourse against the strong. We want to get at the ways corruption acts in government processes, and the Constitution is the blueprint for our system.
It’s also the main anticorruption tool the people have at our disposal. The Constitution is both civil and criminal law. Because it’s the highest law in the United States if something is proven to violate the text, whatever it is must go. Text controls over precedent. over doctrine, over statute. Of course, corrupt government officers know this, too, so twisting the Constitution’s meaning is one of their most powerful strategies. Cutting through it requires the skill of analyzing the text.
Reading the Constitution is a surpisingly rare skill, considering we're a constitutional nation. It's not really taught in law school or poli sci. Key: When you cite the Constitution you're really reciting the whole text but pointing out the article, amendment, section or clause you're citing. So go over the whole text, considering how clauses might apply to your question. You may find the most relevant clause is not the first one that came to mind!
There are numerous sources of constitutional analysis online.
The National Constitution Center and The Atlantic joined forces for one at constitutioncenter.org
Cornell University Law School has an annotated Constitution with links to opinions, the US Code, and the CFR: law.cornell.edu/constitution-conan/. SCOTUSblog posts “SCOTUS for Law Students:” scotusblog.com/category/law-students/. The Department of Justice has “The US Attorney’s Justice 101” at justice.gov/justice-101. And Washington University posts a “SCOTUS Database” at scdb.wustl.edu.
Quick: Is the phrase separation of powers in the Constitution?
It’s not. It’s a constitutional doctrine: a rule or idea about how to interpret the text. The doctrine of doctrines is called principledness, doctrinal coherence, or doctrinality.
Canons and principles of constitutional construction are structural doctrines, part of textual analysis. The way an article or amendment is structured, and the overall structure of the text, is deliberate and tells a lot about the relationships among government processes and among the actors in United States government: the three branches, the two levels, the original and later ratifying conventions, the electorate, and all Americans.
Separation of powers vested in government in branches that must respect one another’s prerogatives is a strong structural doctrine because the records of the Convention make it an unavoidable implication. Checks and balances is another doctrine that can be implied from the many clauses that set branches’ functions opposite each other to hold each other back from tyranny.
Other doctrines are procedural. Proposed by the Supreme Court or legal scholars, they have to be shown useful over generations to be fully accepted. What is the common principle behind the procedural doctrines? The text’s vestitures and reservations of powers and its processes for apportionment, election, appointment, lawmaking, justice, execution, and its own amendment are mandates to prevent tyranny.
Despite its institutional tone constitutional doctrine has inherent dangers. The Preamble’s Posterity clause bars each branch from restricting its future counterparts’ ability to view constitutionality. Some doctrines are in the form of tests like prongs, relevant standards, or hurdles an interpretation must show it overcomes. A test distances judges from the text. And when leaned on too heavily in an opinion doctrine can be hiding corruption.
Like laws, principles and canons, they’re always incomplete and somewhat tentative. And just like canons, doctrines can contradict each other.
But doctrine does make interpretation easier. The text says more than any one generation can see, and wisdom is not cumulative. Principles can help you find the thread.
You construe something by studying its construction.
The following are common canons and principles of legal construction. These aren’t laws. Developed over time to guide analysis, they sometimes contradict each other when read in the abstract. Applying them makes it easier to see how a particular canon or principle works. 1 USC 1-8 lists a few narrow ones.
The better you understand grammar and usage, the easier you’ll find reading laws. Many canons come down to: Presume it’s written in English.
Where the list says statute it can also mean contract, constitution, or any legal document.
principle of interrelating canons: No canon is absolute. A different canon may control.
whole-text canon: Construe the statute as a whole.
harmonious reading canon: Interpreting provisions to be compatible controls over interpreting them to be contradictory.
related-statutes canon: If statutes are together in one act, interpret them as though they were one law.
presumption of validity: An interpretation that validates the statute controls over one that invalidates it.
constitutional-doubt canon: An interpretation that doesn’t throw a law’s constitutionality into doubt controls.
presumption against ineffectiveness: An interpretation that furthers the statute’s purpose controls over one that obstructs it, as long as it doesn’t contradict any text.
surplusage canon: An interpretation that gives every word and every provision meaning controls. Don’t ignore any text. Don’t give one word or provision a meaning that would render another meaningless or duplicative.
presumption of consistent usage: Meanings remain the same throughout a document unless there’s a contextual clue
fixed meaning: A word’s meaning when the document was drafted remains the meaning, even if that word is no longer used that way.
esjudem generis: A word is known by the company it keeps.
prior-construction canon: If a jurisdiction’s court of last resort, all lower courts, or an agency define a word one way, presume that’s the way the statute means it.
presumption against implied repeal: A provision is only repealed when a more recent provision says so or flatly contradicts it.
repeal of repealer canon: Repealing a repeal doesn’t reinstate the law it had repealed. It would have to be passed anew.
presumption against retroactivity: Presume a law doesn’t act retroactively (Ex Post Facto clause, art I).
pending-action canon: If a law is changed during a lawsuit, apply the new law (unless this would violate the Ex Post Facto clause)
extraterritoriality canon: Presume a statute only applies within its geographical jurisdiction.
repealability canon: A legislature can’t reduce its own authority or its successors’.
presumption against federal preemption: Presume a federal law supplements an earlier state law, instead of replacing it.
penalty/illegality canon: The existence of a statutory penalty means the act penalized is unlawful.
rule of lenity: If part of a criminal statute is ambiguous, an interpretation in the defendant’s favor controls.
mens rea canon: Presume a statute whose punishment is grave requires at least awareness of committing the act.
predicate-act canon: To authorize an act also authorizes a necessary predicate act.
desuetude canon: Old laws that haven’t been used can still be used.
mandatory/permissive canon: Words like shall, will, must, or require impose mandates. Phrases like if, in case of, or as long as impose mandates under those circumstances. Phrases like is authorized to, has the power of, and (often but not always) may allow discretion.
omitted-case canon: If something is not included, assume that is intentional.
negative-implication canon: If one thing is expressed, it excludes others not expressed.
presumption of nonexclusive include: Include means a list contains examples, not every possibility.
general-specific canon: A general provision controls over a specific one.
earlier-later canon: A more recently passed provision controls over an earlier one.
irreconcilability canon: If provisions are incompatible, at the same level of generality, and the same age, strike both.
absurdity doctrine: A provision that would be absurd if it meant what it says can be disregarded or corrected.