The United States Code, often abbreviated USC, is an incredibly long series of laws containing just about every piece of legislation passed by Congress. It is one of the primary sources of U.S. federal law, along with the Constitution of the United States of America, the Code of Federal Regulations, and the rulings of federal courts.

The USC is prepared by the Law Revision Counsel of the House of Representatives, who publishes a new edition every six years. Basically, each edition of the USC takes all the laws passed by Congress and organizes them into a ready reference sort of format, taking into account amendments, newer laws that overrule older ones, and other complications. Until the new USC comes out, you have to look for new Congressional laws in the Federal Register, Statutes at Large, or by going through the individual "slip laws" issued upon the passage of each bill.

West Publishing publishes its own edition of the USC, called the United States Code Annotated (USCA), while LexisNexis publishes an edition called the United States Code Service (USCS). Both editions supplement each section of the Code with citations to court cases that help to explain what the section means. They are published annually and available online through the publishers' respective legal database services.

The most recent "official" edition of the USC was compiled in 2000, and you can browse or search it online at several sites, including:

  • http://uscode.house.gov/ (Word format)
  • http://www.access.gpo.gov/uscode/uscmain.html (HTML format)
You can also order it on CD-ROM for $45.00, or in encyclopedia-style dead tree format for somewhere in the vicinity of two thousand dollars. Both versions are available from the GPO's website at bookstore.gpo.gov.

The Code is divided into fifty titles, which are further subdivided into chapters and sections. Occasionally, long chapters are split into subchapters, which can then be divided again into parts. Usually, the chapters and all the other intermediary dividers are ignored when you cite a law from the Code: all you need to know is the title and section number. "21 USC 801," for instance, refers to section 801 of part A of subchapter I of chapter 13 of title 21 (listing some general opinions of Congress on illegal drugs).

If you browse through the Code, you'll quickly discover that most of its contents are redundant or outdated. Congress is currently trying to revise the United States Code in a process called "positive law codification," which seeks to re-organize the entire volume title by title into a solid legal reference with far fewer ambiguities, contradictions, and antiquities.

Try not to confuse the USC with the CFR. The USC is Congressional law: the CFR is administrative law created by the executive branch agencies. They look and feel very similar, but are actually very different volumes.

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