Acts, also referred to as Public Laws, are first printed as slip laws in pamphlets provided by the U.S. Government Publishing Office. These are most easily found on govinfo, "a service of the United States Government Publishing Office (GPO)" that "provides free public access to official publications from all three branches of the Federal Government". If an enacted law is so recent that it is not yet available on govinfo, see the enrolled version of the bill available from Congress.gov.
For information on how bills become laws and where to find bills, including bills not enacted into law, see our Federal Legislative History guide.
Statutes at Large
The Statutes at Large is the official publication for public laws. The slip laws on govinfo will include the Statutes at Large pagination; however, there is a few years' delay between the pagination assignation and the printing of the Statutes at Large volume. Because of this delay, commercial publishers print public laws in other sources. The United States Code Congressional and Administrative News (USCCAN), published by West/Thomson Reuters, and the Advance Pamphlets to the United States Code Service, published by Lexis, are the first printing of public laws outside of the slip laws. Public laws are also available on numerous electronic databases. The print and electronic resources available to Jenkins members for locating public laws are listed in this guide.
"Positive law typically consists of enacted law — the codes, statutes, and regulations that are applied and enforced in the courts. The term derives from the medieval use of positum (Latin 'established'), so that the phrase positive law literally means law established by human authority." Positive Law, Black's Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019).
The Statutes at Large were first codified by subject in the Revised Statutes of the United States in 1874. These Revised Statutes were enacted as positive law and repealed their Statutes at Large counterparts. The codification of the Statutes at Large into the United States Code began in 1926; however, this codification was not enacted as positive law, nor did it repeal the Revised Statutes. In 1947, Congress began revising the U.S.C. and enacting it into positive law. Currently 27 of the 54 titles of the U.S.C. have been enacted as positive law by Congress. See the table of "Titles of United States Code", found at the beginning of the U.S.C. volumes, for a full list of titles enacted as positive law. For more information on positive law, see Kent C. Olson, Principles of Legal Research § 3.4(c) (2nd ed., 2015).
Public Laws vs Private Laws
govinfo summaries the difference between Public and Private Laws as follows:
"Most laws passed by Congress are public laws. Public laws affect society as a whole. Public laws citations include the abbreviation, Pub.L., the Congress number (e.g. 107), and the number of the law. For example: Pub.L. 107-006.
Private Laws affect an individual, family, or small group, and are enacted to assist citizens that have been injured by government programs or who are appealing an executive agency ruling such as deportation. Private laws citations include the abbreviation, Pvt.L., the Congress number (e.g. 107), and the number of the law. For example: Pvt.L. 107-006."
This guide focuses on how to find Public Laws. Some of the resources listed in this guide also provide access to Private Laws.