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The Big Four v. The Final Four

April 02, 2009

As we enter the March Madness of The Final Four, here is a legal research tip that should help you to visualize the relationships between four primary legal sources.  I like to call them "The Big Four."

The Big Four comprises the following four resources: Statutes at Large, U.S. Code, Federal Register and Code of Federal Regulations.   Even if you forget the mechanics of moving from any one quadrant to the other three--as in basketball, practice makes perfect--you will be ahead of the game in your summer or permanent job if you can internalize the basic concepts portrayed in the chart below. 

big four_sm.JPGYou may also download this chart by clicking the following link: big four09.pdf.

The top 2 boxes in the Big Four chart are statutes passed by Congress.  The bottom 2 are regulations written by agency officials.  The bottom 2 are sometimes called "delegated legislation" because they cannot exist without statutory authority. 

It is also useful to read this chart from left to right.  The left 2 boxes are the chronological, historical record, while the 2 on the right are current, subject-arranged codes with obsolete matters dropped.   The left 2 are useful for legislative history and background information on regulations.  The right 2 are essential for practicing law today.  However, sometimes you have to consult the left 2 boxes for very recent laws, such as President Obama's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, because they haven't yet migrated to their codified versions on the right.

The chart above shows a familiar statute, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  This is the title that forbids discrimination in employment on the basis of "race, color, religion, sex or national origin."  But how do you find it?  A glance at the chart will tell you that Title VII is the original title in the 1964 session law--not the title in the current U.S. Code, i.e. 42.  The move from left to right quadrants is one that even Scottie Reynolds might miss because it is a change in both number (7 to 42) as well as form (Roman to arabic). 

Things can get even more complicated when you realize that the 50 titles of the U.S. Code are usually not the same as the 50 titles of the C.F.R.  Conversion tables in paper are readily available in any law library or online on Westlaw.

Reference librarians in Biddle love to help people navigate the legislative/regulatory maze.   If you have any questions, stop by the Reference Desk anytime or call 215-898-7853.