Tuesday, December 7, 2010

32 Flavors. 57 Varieties. 51 Code Titles?

Some numbers just seem destined to remain constant: 24 hours in a day; 212 degrees to boil water; and a 3.5 median in Law School seminar classes. For a long time, it seemed like the 50 titles to the U.S. Code was one of those dependable numbers too. The U.S.C. has had 50 titles since its first edition in 1926 (although their corresponding subjects have changed over time, and Title 34, Navy, has sat empty since its 1956 repeal).

But over the weekend, the Senate unanimously passed H.R. 3237, The Charles 'Pete' Conrad Astronomy Awards Act, which would create Title 51 of the U.S. Code, as a single place for laws on the subject of ‘National and Commercial Space Programs.’ The newly-enacted title would transfer existing code sections related to space from Title 15 (Commerce and Trade), Title 42 (Public Health and Welfare), and Title 49 (Transportation). The bill had passed the U.S. House of Representatives in January 2010, but languished without action in the Senate for months.

H.R. 3237 is an example of positive law codification, a tricky legal research concept which is best explained with a history lesson. The first U.S. Code was an attempt to arrange all of the laws in force (from the chronological U.S. Statutes at Large) by their subject matter. This editorial arrangement of the general and permanent laws in force was considered only “prima facie evidence” of the law (i.e., in the event of a typo or other textual discrepancy, the Statutes at Large text would control). Beginning in 1947, Congress enacted several U.S.C. titles into positive law, systematically revising a title and enacting it as a new statute (thus making the title itself into legal evidence of the law, rather than prima facie evidence). Currently (and until H.R. 3237 is signed by the President), 24 of the U.S.C.’s 50 titles have been enacted into positive law.

The Office of the Law Revision Counsel, the office within Congress which updates editorial changes to the U.S.C., has an information page about the Title 51 codification, as well as pages for its other proposed positive law codification projects, for subjects (like space programs) which don’t fit comfortably into the Code’s current topical structure. If all goes according to the Office’s plan, the U.S.C. could soon expand to 55 titles—although it still has a long way to go before it overtakes its predecessor, the Revised Statutes, which boasted 74 titles in its 1876 edition.

The Office of the Law Revision Counsel is also in the process of proposing positive law revisions to existing U.S.C. titles – another House bill, for the enactment of Title 41 (Public Contracts), also passed the Senate over the weekend, but amendments made in the Senate will need to be reconciled before that bill is sent to the President for signature.

Still unclear about the finer points of positive law codification? Feel free to Ask a Librarian!