Citing the U.S. Code in the New Year

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How would you properly cite a section of the official U.S. Code today, January 6, 2020? As lawyers and law students no doubt realize, the answer is more complicated than it may appear. This post will offer advice and reasoning about how to go about choosing the year to append to the title number, abbreviation, and section number that will make a complete and correct citation following the rules of The Bluebook.

Some Background

Bluebook Rule 12.3 announces: “Cite the United States Code (U.S.C.), the official federal code, whenever possible.” As a bit of background, the U.S.C. is compiled by the Office of the Law Revision Counsel (OLRC), a Congressional bureaucratic office. The U.S.C. is printed by the Government Publishing Office (GPO), a separate Congressional agency. The U.S.C. has been the official federal code since 1926. Since then, the code has been published in a new edition, sometimes called a replacement edition, every six years. The last full printed set available has been the 2012 edition. This publication history is relevant when it comes to figuring out which year to include in your citation of a code section.

According to Bluebook Rule 12.3.2, one selects the proper year to use in your U.S.C. citation in a kind of flowchart fashion. To wit, “[w]hen citing a bound volume of the current official … code,” you pick “the year that appears on the spine of the volume, the year that appears on the title page, or the latest copyright year—in that order of preference.”

The 2018 Edition

In late 2019, the GPO began releasing the 2018 edition in print. Our library here at Carolina Law has already received the first 8 volumes of this new edition, covering Titles 1-12. Based on how we have received volumes from the 2012 and 2006 editions, we estimate that we will have the full replacement set by the end of 2020. But you need to cite 15 U.S.C. § 1632 today. You cannot access the 2018 volume in print because we don’t have it yet. Is there a way you can still cite it as 15 U.S.C. § 1632 (2018)?

Now, here is the point in the blawg post where I declare my bias – I think the purpose of legal citation is to help the reader identify the source material supporting an assertion most reliably. Sometimes, that means consulting and citing to a print source. Sometimes, that means using a source that can be found online. So what follows is my advice for how I think you can resolve this problem.

The GPO has already released the entire U.S.C. 2018 edition online via GovInfo. This edition provides PDF verions of what text will appear in the printed bound volumes. There is a Bluebook provision found in Rule 18.2.1(a) stating that online resources may be cited if they represent either an “exact copy” of a printed source without needing to append a URL, also referenced in Rule 12.2.1(a). This rule also notes at its beginning that the “federal government is … moving toward increasing access to online versions of legal documents,” likely signaling that works like the U.S.C. are being contemplated by this rule. (There is another subsection, 18.2.1(b)(i), which states that “cited information … available in a traditional source [that] is so obscure as to be practically unavailable” can be cited with reference to both the traditional source and the URL, so if you are feeling risk averse, you might wish to take this path.)

How To Pick The Right Year (Hint, It's 2018)

Let’s look back at our Rule 12.3.2 “Year of Code” flowchart for a minute. Ideally, you would find the print volume, look at its spine, and be done with things. That isn’t possible here and leaves us only two other options. We can also eliminate option 3, since the USC is not copyrighted nor is it copyrightable as a work of federal law. That leaves only the second option: finding “the year that appears on the title page.”

I think we are on solid ground, then, proceeding with a combination of Rule 18.2.1(a) and Rule 12.3.2’s option of finding the year appearing on the title page. While the PDF versions of the U.S.C. on GovInfo do not include traditional title pages because title pages are only created for print volumes and the PDFs on GovInfo are broken out by Title, I do think there is an analogy to be made between a title page and pieces of information on GovInfo called “Content Details.” Content Details pages are available for each Title of the code. To get an idea of what this looks like, check out the Content Details for Title 15 on GovInfo. This page, which I think of as a title page, clearly states the publication’s date as 2018.

I suppose there are plenty of other arguments that could be made as to why it is proper to cite to sections of the U.S.C. using the year 2018. Of course, you must still visit the GovInfo site and make sure that the information you are citing is correct. And if you are working for a law journal, you should consult with your editors to learn their preferences. Those caveats aside, for most of us, I think the time has come to turn the page on our U.S.C. calendars from 2012 to 2018. Out with the old and in with the new!  

Edit (1/7/20):

For an additional justification and an interesting technology tidbit, see Citing the U.S. Code in the New Year: Part 2.


Posted by Aaron S. Kirschenfeld on Mon. January 6, 2020 3:06 PM
Categories: Uncategorized


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