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Essential Legal Research Skills for Law Students: Statutes

During the fall 2020 and Spring 2021 semesters, some of the library services will be modified to address the effects of the COVID-19 virus. Check the Law Library web page for updates (


Although the United States is traditionally and historically considered a common law country, the number of laws passed by legislatures is increasing. Statutes are laws enacted by the legislative branch of the government. Statutes are primary authority and take precedence over case law. The general pattern for publication of statutes begins with the publication of slip laws and ends with the laws being codified in an annotated code.

The U.S. Constitution is "the supreme law of the land." Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137, 180 (1803). The U.S. Constitution and state constitutions are researched in the same way that statutes are researched. In addition, Article VI of the U.S. Constitution gives treaties the same legal effect and status as federal statutes. 

First-year legal skills classes focus on the specifics of the legislative process and publication of federal and New York statutes. Each state organizes its statutory codes differently. Once you understand the general pattern of how statutes are created, published, and later codified, you should be able to apply this basic understanding in any jurisdiction and be able to work with the statutes in that jurisdiction. 

In your upper-level law school classes, you become familiar with the federal and state regulatory systems, where the legislature has delegated authority to executive agencies to implement the purposes of legislation. Regulations have the force of law and are the third category of primary legal resources in U.S. law.

“All Legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.” U.S. Const. art. I, § 1.

Statutory law is created by the legislative branch of government. After a bill, or proposed new law, is introduced in the legislature, it must make its way through the legislative process - that is, survive deliberations in legislative committees, debate in each house of the legislature, votes by the entire legislature, and finally, signature by the President - before it becomes law.

Federal laws are passed by the U.S. Congress (U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives) and preempt state laws on the same subject. State laws are passed by state legislatures (in most states, the State Senate and Assembly). Statutes are primary authority and take precedence over case law and administrative regulations.


The state legislative process is similar to the federal legislative process. After a bill is introduced either in the state assembly or the state senate, it must make its way through the legislative process and be signed by the Governor (who also has veto power) before the bill becomes law.

In New York, session laws are called chapter laws.

After a bill is enacted by Congress and becomes a law, it is published. Laws can be public (affecting all people) or private (passed on behalf of an individual). Public Laws are numbered consecutively by date of passage and the Congress in which they are enacted, and abbreviated as Pub. L. No. For example: Pub. L. No. 114-11, the Energy Efficiency Improvement Act of 2015, was the 11th law passed in the 114th Congress.

The first publication of a new law is called a slip law, after the page or pamphlet in which new laws were first released before the invention of the Internet. Federal slip laws are shelved on the third floor of the Law Library as they are received.

Public Laws are then compiled and printed chronologically into bound volumes of Session Laws. Federal session laws are published in the United States Statutes at Large, compiled at the end of each session of Congress, and are abbreviated as Stat. For example, 126 Stat. 3 means that the law is published in the 126th volume of the Statutes at Large on page 3. The United States Statutes at Large in print are also shelved on the third floor of the Law Library.

Session laws are then codified and published in a statutory code. Codification is the process of editing and organizing public laws by subject matter to make statutory research easier.

The United States Code (U.S.C.) is the official compendium of the general and permanent laws of the United States, organized into subject matter titles. The Code contains fifty-four subject titles published by the Office of the Law Revision Counsel of the U.S. House of Representatives.

A current, authenticated version of the U.S. Code is available here, along with historical versions of the U.S. Code beginning in 1994. 

First published in 1926, the U.S. Code is published every six years in a new print edition. The most recent is the 2018 edition. In between editions, annual cumulative supplements are published containing laws and amendments enacted since the last edition.

The official United States Code contains the federal laws, but it has only a limited index and other research aids. For legal research, two unofficial versions of the United States Code are published: one by Thomson Reuters (United States Code Annotated, or U.S.C.A.) and the other by Lexis (United States Code Service, or U.S.C.S.). These unofficial versions of the Code are most often used by legal researchers.

These unofficial codes are annotated with many research aids, including legislative history information, explanatory notes by legal experts, cross-references to secondary sources and regulations, and citations to cases relevant to each statute. The U.S.C.A. and the U.S.C.S. are available on Westlaw and Lexis, respectively, and in print on the third level of Elisabeth Haub Law Library.


The statutory code of the State of New York is published by both Thomson Reuters (McKinney's Consolidated Laws of New York or McKinney) and Lexis (New York Consolidated Laws Service, or C.L.S.). The New York code is published in over 300 volumes and more than 90 subject titles. The linked Chart from Thomson Reuters lists all titles of McKinney's Consolidated Laws of New York with the publication dates of bound volumes (      

New York statutes can be found on Westlaw and Lexis. They can also be found for free at the New York State Legislative Information website. 

The multi-volume set of McKinney's in print is available on the third level of the Elisabeth Haub Law Library. 

The Legislative Process