This article is from the Legal Research FAQ, by Mark Eckenwiler with numerous contributions by others.
The basic structure of a federal statutory citation is
[volume] U.S.C. sec. [number]
"U.S.C." is United States Code, the official government codification
of all U.S. statutes. U.S.C. is divided into roughly 50 different
categories ("titles"), each with a name and number; Title 8, for
example, covers immigration law. This title number is used as the
[volume] marker at the start of a cite. The [number] field is simply
the section number of the referenced statute. For instance, 28 U.S.C.
sec. 2254 is the federal statute permitting state prisoners to file
habeas corpus petitions in federal court.
(This FAQ uses the notation "sec." in place of the formal
section symbol [a doubled S]. Other ASCII-limited sources, such as
**Westlaw and **Lexis, may use "$", "@", or even "|" instead.)
Some of the more important titles of U.S.C. are Title 11
(bankruptcy), Title 18 (criminal laws), Title 26 (Internal Revenue
Code), Title 28 (Judicial procedure), and Title 42 (Public Health and
(You may occasionally hear people refer to certain laws as
"Title so-and-so", such as Title IX (barring sex discrimination in
education), Title III (regulating wiretaps), and Title VII (barring
race/sex-based employment discrimination). These are not titles of
U.S.C.; rather, they refer to specific portions of particular Acts of
Congress. Title III, for instance, is the third major section in the
Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968.)
Relatively few people use U.S.C. itself, which collects statutory
revisions in cumbersome separate volumes. Instead, most researchers
use **United States Code Annotated (or **United States Code Service),
two private publications which include not only the statutes but also
useful summaries of relevant court decisions. U.S.C.A. and U.S.C.S.
are discussed at greater length below, in section 4.1.1.
The United States Code may also be found on the net at
Be careful; online versions are often 12 months or more out of date.
State laws are not organized in a uniform manner. For example,
in Massachusetts, the laws are divided into "chapters": Massachusetts
General Law ch. 89, sec. 11 penalizes motorist failure to yield to
crosswalk pedestrians. In New York, the major divisions have names
but not numbers, e.g., NY Penal Law sec. 245.01 (indecent exposure).
Each state publishes an annotated version of its statutes similar to
Note also that many smaller units of government -- counties,
parishes, cities, towns -- also have their own statutes, sometimes
called "ordinances". Publication formats vary widely.
For information on locating state and local law on the net, see
section 6 below.