Statutory Law

Statutes are enacted by the legislative branch of government (whether federal or state) to regulate areas within the legislature’s jurisdiction, as granted by the Constitution.

The United States Congress (by authority of Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution) has reserved to itself the power to regulate certain activities and functions, including patents, trademarks, copyrights, federal taxation, customs matters, the postal system, admiralty matters, bankruptcy, and diplomatic matters. It has the exclusive right to pass laws affecting these subjects. Congress also has power to pass legislation in areas not specifically assigned to it by the Constitution — such as labor and pollution control — that fall within its enumerated powers.

A law passed by Congress is not effective until it is signed into law by the president or has been repassed over the president’s veto by a two-thirds majority of each house of the Congress, or if the president takes no action within 10 days of receiving it. Laws are published at the end of each session of Congress in the Statutes at Large (Stat.), where the laws are arranged chronologically, and are ultimately compiled in the United States Code (U.S.C.), where the laws are grouped by subject. (Various private publishers also publish annotated editions of the United States Code.) This Code is organized into 50 titles or general subject areas (see Table).

Titles of the United States Code

  1. General Provisions
  2. The Congress
  3. The President
  4. Flag and Seal, Seat of Government and the States
  5. Government Organization and Employees
  6. Surety Bonds [repealed, and most provisions covered under title 31]
  7. Agriculture
  8. Aliens and Nationality
  9. Arbitration
  10. Armed Forces
  11. Bankruptcy
  12. Banks and Banking
  13. Census
  14. Coast Guard
  15. Commerce and Trade
  16. Conservation
  17. Copyrights
  18. Crimes and Criminal Procedure
  19. Customs Duties
  20. Education
  21. Food and Drugs
  22. Foreign Relations and Intercourse
  23. Highways
  24. Hospitals and Asylums
  25. Indians
  26. Internal Revenue Code
  27. Intoxicating Liquors
  28. Judiciary and Judicial Procedure
  29. Labor
  30. Mineral Lands and Mining
  31. Money and Finance
  32. National Guard
  33. Navigation and Navigable Waters
  34. Navy [eliminated by the enactment of title 10]
  35. Patents
  36. Patriotic Societies and Observances
  37. Pay and Allowances of the Uniformed Services
  38. Veterans’ Benefits
  39. Postal Service
  40. Public Buildings, Property, and Works
  41. Public Contracts
  42. The Public Health and Welfare
  43. Public Lands
  44. Public Printing and Documents
  45. Railroads
  46. Shipping
  47. Telegraphs, Telephones, and Radiotelegraphs
  48. Territories and Insular Possessions
  49. Transportation
  50. War and National Defense (with Appendix)

Each year the state legislatures also pass many laws, which become effective when they either receive gubernatorial approval or are passed over the governor’s veto. The exact titles of the state session laws — that is, the collections of statutes passed in each session of the state legislature — vary, as do the titles given to the state law compilations. In Michigan, for example, they are known as Michigan Compiled Laws; in Minnesota they are calledMinnesota Statutes Annotated; in North Dakota they are called the North Dakota Century Code. (Like the United States Code, some of these compilations are published in annotated editions by private law-book publishers.)

Relationship of constitutions, statutes, and the courts

Because of the supremacy clause in the Constitution, federal laws must comply only with the federal Constitution, but the laws of any state must comply with provisions of both the state constitution and the federal Constitution. In a conflict between a federal and a state law, the federal law preempts the state law.

Statutory law is superior to case law as a source of law, and courts ordinarily are bound to apply the relevant statutory law to the cases that they decide. However, if a state legislature were to pass a law in violation of the state constitution — for example, a law requiring that all textbooks be submitted to a review board — the appellate court in the state could declare the law unconstitutional. Courts will also interpret statutes and supply legal principles when no rule exists. Once the court issues a decision, the decision becomes part of the case law on the subject.