The Universe of Discourse

Thu, 03 Oct 2019

The pain of tracking down changes in U.S. law

Last month when I was researching my article about the free coffee provision in U.S. federal highway law, I spent a great deal of time writing this fragment:

under the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1978

I knew that the provision was in 23 USC §131, but I should explain what this means.

The body of U.S. statutory law can be considered a single giant document, which is "codified" as the United States Code, or USC for short. USC is divided into fifty or sixty “titles” or subject areas, of which the relevant one here, title 23, concerns “Highways”. The titles are then divided into sections (the free coffee is in section 131), paragraphs, sub-paragraphs, and so on, each with an identifying letter. The free coffee is 23 USC §131 (c)(5).

But this didn't tell me when the coffee exception was introduced or in what legislation. Most of Title 23 dates from 1958, but the coffee sign exception was added later. When Congress amends a law, they do it by specifying a patch to the existing code. My use of the programmer jargon term “patch” here is not an analogy. The portion of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1978 that enacted the “free coffee” exception reads as follows:


Sec. 121. Section 131(c) of title 23, United States Code, is amended—
  (1) by striking out “and (4)” and inserting in lieu thereof “(4)”; and
  (2) by striking out the period at the end thereof and inserting in lieu thereof a comma and the following: “and (5) signs, displays, and devices advertising the distribution of nonprofit organizations of free coffee […]”.

(The “[…]” is my elision. The Act includes the complete text that was to be inserted.)

The act is not phrased as a high-level functional description, such as “extend the list of exceptions to include: ... ”. It says to replace the text ‘and (4)’ with the text ‘(4)’; then replace the period with a comma; then …”, just as if Congress were preparing a patch in a version control system.

Unfortunately, the lack of an actual version control system makes it quite hard to find out when any particular change was introduced. The code page I read is provided by the Legal Information Institute at Cornell University. At the bottom of the page, there is a listing of the changes that went into this particular section:

(Pub. L. 85–767, Aug. 27, 1958, 72 Stat. 904; Pub. L. 86–342, title I, § 106, Sept. 21, 1959, 73 Stat. 612; Pub. L. 87–61, title I, § 106, June 29, 1961, 75 Stat. 123; Pub. L. 88–157, § 5, Oct. 24, 1963, 77 Stat. 277; Pub. L. 89–285, title I, § 101, Oct. 22, 1965, 79 Stat. 1028; Pub. L. 89–574, § 8(a), Sept. 13, 1966, 80 Stat. 768; Pub. L. 90–495, § 6(a)–(d), Aug. 23, 1968, 82 Stat. 817; Pub. L. 91–605, title I, § 122(a), Dec. 31, 1970, 84 Stat. 1726; Pub. L. 93–643, § 109, Jan. 4, 1975, 88 Stat. 2284; Pub. L. 94–280, title I, § 122, May 5, 1976, 90 Stat. 438; Pub. L. 95–599, title I, §§ 121, 122, Nov. 6, 1978, 92 Stat. 2700, 2701; Pub. L. 96–106, § 6, Nov. 9, 1979, 93 Stat. 797; Pub. L. 102–240, title I, § 1046(a)–(c), Dec. 18, 1991, 105 Stat. 1995, 1996; Pub. L. 102–302, § 104, June 22, 1992, 106 Stat. 253; Pub. L. 104–59, title III, § 314, Nov. 28, 1995, 109 Stat. 586; Pub. L. 105–178, title I, § 1212(a)(2)(A), June 9, 1998, 112 Stat. 193; Pub. L. 112–141, div. A, title I, §§ 1519(c)(6), formerly 1519(c)(7), 1539(b), July 6, 2012, 126 Stat. 576, 587, renumbered § 1519(c)(6), Pub. L. 114–94, div. A, title I, § 1446(d)(5)(B), Dec. 4, 2015, 129 Stat. 1438.)


Each of these is a citation of a particular Act of Congress. For example, the first one

Pub. L. 85–767, Aug. 27, 1958, 72 Stat. 904

refers to “Public law 85–767”, the 767th law enacted by the 85th Congress, which met during the Eisenhower administration, from 1957–1959. The U.S. Congress has a useful web site that contains a list of all the public laws, with links — but it only goes back to the 93rd Congress of 1973–1974.

And anyway, just knowing that it is Public law 85–767 is not (or was not formerly) enough to tell you how to look up its text. The laws must be published somewhere before they are codified, and scans of these publications, the United States Statutes at Large, are online back to the 82nd Congress. That is what the “72 Stat. 904” means: the publication was in volume 72 of the Statutes at Large, page 904. This citation style was obviously designed at a time when the best (or only) way to find the statute was to go down to the library and pull volume 72 off the shelf. It is well-designed for that purpose. Now, not so much.

Here's a screengrab of the relevant portion of the relevant part of the 1978 act:

Screengrab of scan of the text quoted earlier, ADVERTISING BY

The citation for this was:

Pub. L. 95–599, title I, §§ 121, 122, Nov. 6, 1978, 92 Stat. 2700, 2701

(Note that “title I, §§ 121, 122” here refers to the sections of the act itself, not the section of the US Code that was being amended; that was title 23, §131, remember.)

To track this down, I had no choice but to grovel over each of the links to the Statutes at Large, download each scan, and search over each one looking for the coffee provision. I kept written notes so that I wouldn't mix up the congressional term numbers with the Statutes volume numbers.

It ought to be possible, at least in principle, to put the entire U.S. Code into a version control system, with each Act of Congress represented as one or more commits, maybe as a merged topic branch. The commit message could contain the citation, something like this:

    commit a4e2b2a1ca2d5245c275ddef55bf8169d72580df
    Merge: 6829b2dd986 836108c2ba0
    Author: ... <...>
    Date:   Mon Nov 6 00:00:00 1978 -0400

        Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1978

        P.L. 95–599
        92 Stat. 2689–2762
        H.R. 11733   

        Merge branch `pl-95-599` to `master`

    commit 836108c2ba0d5245c275ddef55bf8169d72580df
    Author: ... <...>
    Date:   Mon Nov 6 00:00:00 1978 -0400

        Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1978 (section 121)

        (Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1978, title I)
        P.L. 95–599
        92 Stat. 2689–2762
        H.R. 11733

        Signs advertising free coffee are no longer prohibited
        within 660 feet of a federal highway.

    diff --git a/USC/ b/USC/
    index 084bfc2..caa5a53 100644
    --- a/USC/
    +++ b/USC/
    @@ -20565,11 +20565,16 @@ 23 U.S. Code § 131. Control of outdoor advertising
     be changed at reasonable intervals by electronic process or by remote
     control, advertising activities conducted on the property on which
    -they are located, and (4) signs lawfully in existence on October 22,
    +they are located, (4) signs lawfully in existence on October 22,
     1965, determined by the State, subject to the approval of the
     Secretary, to be landmark signs, including signs on farm structures or
     natural surfaces, or historic or artistic significance the
     preservation of which would be consistent with the purposes of this
    +section, and (5) signs, displays, and devices advertising the
    +distribution by nonprofit organizations of free coffee to individuals
    +traveling on the Interstate System or the primary system. For the
    +purposes of this subsection, the term “free coffee” shall include
    +coffee for which a donation may be made, but is not required.
     *(d)* In order to promote the reasonable, orderly and effective 

Or maybe the titles would be directories and the sections would be numbered files in those directories. Whatever. If this existed, I would be able to do something like:

  git log -Scoffee -p -- USC/

and the Act that I wanted would pop right out.

Preparing a version history of the United States Code would be a dauntingly large undertaking, but gosh, so useful. A good VCS enables you to answer questions that you previously wouldn't have even thought of asking.

Steve Buscemi in _Reservoir Dogs_ is playing
the world's smallest violin.

This article started as a lament about how hard it was for me to track down the provenance of the coffee exception. But it occurs to me that this is the response of someone who has been spoiled by plenty. A generation ago it would have been unthinkable for me even to try to track this down. I would have had to start by reading a book about legal citations and learning what “79 Stat. 1028” meant, instead of just picking it up on the fly. Then I would have had to locate a library with a set of the Statutes at Large and travel to it. And here I am complaining about how I had to click 18 links and do an (automated!) text search on 18 short, relevant excerpts of the Statutes at Large, all while sitting in my chair.

My kids can't quite process the fact that in my childhood, you simply didn't know what the law was and you had no good way to find out. You could go down to the library, take the pertinent volumes of the USC off the shelf, and hope you had looked in all the appropriate places for the relevant statutes, but you could never be sure you hadn't overlooked something. OK, well, you still can't be sure, but now you can do keyword search, and you can at least read what it does say without having to get on a train.

Truly, we live in an age of marvels.

[ Addendum 20191004: More about this ]

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