By Jessica R. Alexander, Reference and Circulation Librarian, South Texas College of Law, affiliated with Texas A & M University
A library patron looked puzzled as he approached the reference desk. He held a petition in his hand. He was a junior associate at a law firm and was assigned to do the preliminary work necessary for responding to the pleading. He showed me the pleading and said he surmised that the petition had erroneously stated the section of the federal law on which it was based.|
I looked at the pleading and concluded that the section numbering probably referred to the divisions found in the session laws of a particular United States Congress published by the United States Government Printing Office in United States Statutes at Large. We consulted the Public Law in which the statute was found and, indeed, the numbering matched.
I thought it might be useful to me as a librarian, to law students, and even to faculty, to delve deeper into the reasons for citing federal session laws in pleadings and other legal documents.
Best EvidenceFederal law contains this provision:
United States Statutes at Large shall be legal evidence of laws, concurrent resolutions, proclamations by the President and proposed or ratified amendments to the Constitution of the United States therein contained, in all the courts of the United States, the several States, and the Territories and insular possessions of the United States. (1 U.S.C. Section 112.)
Is this provision a fact to file away for a game on legal trivia? Not by a long shot. The evidentiary value of United States Statues at Large is important for legal analysis, writing, and advocacy of all kinds and may well affect the outcome of a case. How to Find the Law, Cohen, Berring, & Olson (West Publishing Co. 1989) contains an informative discussion of the distinction between the "positive law" contained in the United States Statutes at Large as opposed to the "prima facie" law in many of the Titles of the United States Code.
Cohen, Berring & Olson cite some cases where the distinction has been critical to the outcome of the case. Rayer's Inc. v. United States, 265 F.2d 615 (3d Cir. 1959) reminds us that editors, publishers, and printers are not perfect. In this case, the compilers of the United States Code printed a portion of a bill that was excised upon final passage. United States Statutes at Large got it right.
The court in a later case, Abell v. United States, 518 F.2d 1369, 1376 (Ct. Cl. 1965), held that even if a title of the United States Code has been re-enacted as "positive law," if its provisions conflict with the United States Statutes at Large, the latter will prevail. The Abell court relied upon United States v. Welden, 377 U.S. 95 (1964). (Some titles of the United States Code have been reenacted as "positive law." 1 U.S.C. § 204. A list designating titles containing "positive law" is found in the front of each United States Code volume.)
These cases turn on close interpretation of the original bills and their amendments. Therefore, if you are contemplating an issue of federal law that contains complicated amendments, it may be worth the time to seek out the provisions of the actual bill as signed by the President. Since the paper editions of United States Statutes at Large are not published promptly and may lag several legislative sessions behind the one most recently completed, electronic databases can provide updated information to fill the paper gap. Westlaw, Lexis-Nexis, and Congressional Information Service (CIS) are subscription services that contain Public Law databases.
If you do not have access to a subscription service, free internet access to this information is available through the United States Government Printing Office web site at http://www.access.gpo.gov/su_docs/aces/dcff001.html. The database contains the United States Statutes at Large for the 104th Congress to the present 106th congressional session. The user should click on the Public Laws database. You also may wish to visit the Library of Congress web site at http://thomas.loc.gov/. The South Texas College of Law Library web site has hot links to several sources for legislative information, including the Library of Congress. Visit the South Texas College of Law Library web site at http://www.stcl.tamu.edu/library/libhome.html. Click on "Legal Research Links" and then visit our "Federal" links. (Our site is being refurbished, so visit again in a few months to see our new look as well!)
Citation RulesThe Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation, Rule 12.3.1, requires a writer to use a statute's name and bill section number (appearing in the session law) only if the statute is commonly cited that way or the information would otherwise aid in identification. The rule states that an official name, a popular name, or both may be used. Therefore, the writer may use professional judgment. Rule 12.3.1 illustrates federal statutes with the Labor Management Relations Act and the Occupational Health and Safety Act.
Whatever the situation, have a citation to the United States Statutes at Large at hand for use in legal argument. Remember: case histories prove that legal minutiae cannot be relegated to the back burner.