The federal statutory laws are found in the United States Code. The copy of the Code that most lawyers are familiar with is the United States Code Annotated. The term annotated means there are notations following the code section from court cases that have interpreted or applied that particular statutory code section. The annotations are frequently helpful in interpreting what the true meaning is of that statutory code section.
Most state codes are annotated and contain court decisions from both state and federal courts interpreting the various code sections. Local codes tend not to be annotated simply because the local governments that publish the local codes do not have the financial resources to annotate their local codes. Also, there tends not to be a great volume of case law interpreting local codes.
There is a shorthand abbreviation that is used for references to the United States Code. For instance, 28 USC §1392 is a reference to Title 28 of the United States Code Section 1392. The United States Code contains many volumes, like a set of encyclopedias. All of the titles are numbered sequentially on the binding of each volume. 28 USC §1392 would be found in one of the volumes marked Title 28. Within those volumes, §1392 would be found sequentially.
The state codes may have their own distinct numbering system. For instance, in regard to the Virginia Code, references to a code section would be to a specific numbered section such as Virginia Code Section 8.01-234. That is a reference to Title 8.01. Within that title, you would look for the code section designated as 234. Local codes may be designated in a similar fashion.
The volume of legislation that has been passed by the United States Congress is, in many respects, mind-boggling. There is federal legislation on virtually every issue. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the federal government, even though it seems to be involved in every aspect of our lives, is still a government of limited jurisdiction. You may recall from the section dealing with constitutional law that our founding fathers established the federal government as a government of limited authority with the understanding that whatever authority was not bestowed upon the federal government remained with the state governments. You would never guess that by looking at the volume of federal legislation.
Whatever authority was not bestowed upon the federal government remains with the state governments.
The most significant limitation upon the authority of the federal government is to enact legislation in the criminal sphere. For instance, the federal government has no authority to pass a statute that prohibits homicide in your private home on private property. The federal government does have the authority, however, to pass a law prohibiting homicide on federal land, in a federal building, or against a federal officer. As such, most criminal prosecutions are initiated in the state courts under state law, because the authority of the federal government to enact criminal law truly is limited.
Example: The dichotomy between federal and state law was found in the Rodney King case in Los Angeles, in which police officers were accused of beating a criminal suspect. Those police officers were first tried under state criminal laws and were acquitted (i.e., found not guilty).
The federal government then stepped in and decided that those same police officers would be prosecuted under federal civil rights laws. The federal government had no authority to prosecute them for the crime of assault, since the crime in question did not occur on federal territory, did not involve a federal official, and did not involve a distinct federal interest as far as the assault only was concerned.
The federal government, however, has passed laws that make it a crime for certain persons acting in official governmental capacity to violate the civil rights of people. Those police officers were then prosecuted in the federal court under that federal law. It is in the criminal field that you see the authority of the federal government most clearly restricted in terms of its ability to enact legislation prohibiting certain types of crimes.
At first blush, it would seem that this is a violation of the double jeopardy clause contained within the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution. It has been held, however, by the courts that it is not a double jeopardy violation since there are two separate sovereigns involved—the federal government and the state government. In addition, there were two separate offenses involved—one was the offense of assault under the state code and the other was a civil rights violation under the federal code.
It is in the criminal field that you see the authority of the federal government most clearly restricted.