How to Read a Legal Citation

This is a brief introduction designed for beginning first year law students on how to read a legal citation.

How to read a citation to the Federal Code

Now say you have been asked to find a federal statute and you were given the following cite: 42 USC 1981

This is an example of a legal citation to a section of the United States Code (USC). The USC is the text of the statutory law arranged by subject. Statutes are first broken down into titles. So for example statutes pertaining to civil rights fall within Title 49; those pertaining to labor fall under Title 26. Statutes are further broken down into chapter and section numbers.

For 42 USC 1981, the first number in the citation refers to the title of the code and the last number refers to the section number of the code:

42 USC 1981




Title Number

Abbreviated Name of the Code Compilation

Section Number


So to find that code section, you would go to the United States Code, locate the volume that has Title 42 on the spine and find section 1981 within that volume.

How to find a statute

By name

All of the U.S. Code sources will contains a table for Popular Name Titles.  These titles will match the "short title" listed at the beginning of the slip, or session, law.   When using either WestLaw or Lexis, there will be a "Popular Name Table" option in the the code databases (U.S.C., U.S.C.A., & U.S.C.S.) or when searching the Statutes at Large, or Public Law databases.

By Citation

Finding a code section by statute is fairly simple.  A code citation will look something like this: 22 USC 1501.  This means title 22, section 1501.  The citations in the annotated code work in the same way.  Statutes at Large citations will look like: 104 Stat. 328 (1991).  This means volume 104, and page 328.

When pulling statutes, or code sections, from either Lexis or WestLaw simply enter the proper citation into the search field.

Electronic Sources for the Federal Code

Heinonline Contains the U.S. Code, in PDF format, from 1925 onward.

Legal Information Institute (Cornell Law School) -- Offers the full-text of the following:

GPO Access Provides access to the U.S. Code.

WestLaw Provides access to the Statutes at Large from 1789 to 1972 (US-STATLRG) in PDF format.  It also has the current U.S.C.A. (USCA), and the offical unannotated code (USC).  For public laws, the database US-PL provides access to public laws from the current Congressional session, while US-PL-OLD covers public laws from 1973 to the previous year.  West also provides the text of the United States Code Congressional and Administrative News (USCANN-PL) from 1973 onward.

Lexis Lexis provides access to its annotated code, U.S.C.S.   It also has public laws from 1988 onward in PUBLAW.

Print Sources for the Federal Code

United States Code (unannotated) Published by the Office of the Law Revision Counsel of the U.S. House of Representatives.  Titles reenacted as positive law supersede the Statutes at Large as the authoritative text. KF 62

United States Code Annotated (West) Contains the unofficial text of the U.S. Code along with annotations to West Key Numbers, case citations, ALR annotations, etc. KF 62 W4

United States Code Service (Lexis) Offers annotations to case law and other Lexis secondary law publications. KF 62 L38

Heafey Law Library Research Team