What Is Statutory Law? Definition and Examples

President Johnson uses several fountain pens to sign into law the "War on Poverty" bill.
President Johnson uses several fountain pens to sign into law the "War on Poverty" bill.

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Statutory law consists of laws written and enacted by a legislative body. For the United States federal government, statutory law is the acts passed by the United States Congress, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, or the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act of 2010

Key Takeaway: Statutory Law

  • Statutory law consists of the laws written and enacted by a legislative body.
  • In the case of the United States federal government, statutory law consists of the acts passed by the United States Congress and approved by the president.
  • Statutory law is in contrast to other types of laws such as common law or regulatory law.
  • The statutory laws passed by Congress are designated as either public laws or private laws.
  • Most of the laws passed by Congress each session are public laws.

Origins of Statutory Law 

Statutory laws may originate with national, state legislatures, or local governing bodies. Federal laws must be passed by both houses of Congress, the House of Representatives and the Senate, and then usually require approval from the President of the United States before they can take effect. In rare circumstances, the executive—the president or state governor—may “veto” or refuse to sign the law or reject it. When this happens, the legislature—Congress at the federal level—can override the veto with a two/third supermajority of votes.

Statutory laws enacted by state legislatures or local governments must comply with the U.S. Constitution. In addition, the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution holds that statutory laws enacted by the U.S. Congress take precedence over conflicting laws enacted by the 50 state legislatures.

Statutory law is in contrast to other types of laws such as common law or regulatory law.

Common Law

Common law is law that is based on previous rulings issued by judges rather than law based on constitutions, statutes, or regulations. 

Common law is also known as “case law” and is of two types—one is where judgments passed become new laws where there are no similar statutory laws, and the other is where judges interpret the existing law and determine the need for new boundaries and distinctions. Case law concerns unique disputes resolved by courts using the concrete facts of a case. By contrast, statutes and regulations are written abstractly.

Legal decisions based on statutory law.
Legal decisions based on statutory law.

Chris Collins / Getty Images

Common law, therefore, refers to the collection of precedents and authority set by previous judicial decisions on a particular issue or topic. In that sense, case law may differ from one jurisdiction to another. For example, a case in New York would not be decided using case law from California. Similarly, each federal judiciary circuit has its own set of binding case laws. As a result, a judgment rendered in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will not be binding in the Second Circuit Court but will have persuasive authority. However, decisions rendered by the U.S. Supreme Court are binding on all federal courts, and state courts regarding issues of the Constitution and federal law.

Regulatory Law

Regulatory law, also known as administrative law, deals with procedures established by federal, state, and local administrative regulatory agencies, as opposed to laws created by the legislature—statutory laws—or by court decisions—case law. Federal regulations can relate to a large array of executive branch activities, such as applications for licenses, oversight of environmental laws, and administration of social services like welfare, among many more.

Federal regulations are specific details directives or requirements with the force of law enacted by the federal agencies necessary to enforce the legislative acts passed by Congress, such as the Clean Air Act. Federal regulations can relate to a large array of executive branch activities, such as applications for licenses, oversight of environmental laws, and administration of social services like welfare, among many more. In this sense, administrative laws often relate to functions akin to all three branches of government, but all of them flow from executive branch agencies.

A statutory law enacted by Congress may authorize an executive agency to create regulations needed to meet the goals of the law's mandate and to enforce its rules. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is authorized to regulations needed to enforce the Clean Air Act. Thus the legislative rulemaking authority is delegated, in part, to the administrative agency. The agency may also have procedures for public hearings, and the results of those proceedings can become a precedent for future agency policies. These precedents are akin to the trial case law for the judicial branch. To avoid governmental overreach, federal regulations are subject to congressional oversight—the power of Congress to monitor and, if necessary, change the actions of the executive branch.

How They Work 

Once a bill is passed by Congress and signed by the President it becomes a Public Law.  The legislation receives a Public Law number based on the Congress and when it was issued.  For example, P.L. 117-5 would be the fifth law enacted in the 117th Congress. 

To become a fully enforceable statutory law a Public Law must be published three times. It is first published in a form called a “slip law” by the Office of the Federal Register (OFR) as a part of the Federal Register Publications System.  In this form, the law is published by itself in an unbound pamphlet. It is next published in the United States Statutes at Large, which includes all of the statutory laws passed in the most recent session of Congress

Finally, in a process known as “codification,” all new statutory laws must be published and integrated into the pre-existing body of law.  Currently, this compilation of all the “general and permanent laws” of the United States is the United States Code. The United States Code organizes statutes by subject, and each subject is assigned its own title. For example, Title 51 of The United States Code concerns National and Commercial Space Programs. Titles are then “subdivided into a combination of smaller units such as subtitles, chapters, subchapters, parts, subparts, and sections, not necessarily in that order.”

The United States Code was first published in 1926 and every six years since 1934. Before the United States Code, all of the federal statutory laws in force from 1789 to 1873 were codified in a subject-based publication that has come to be colloquially known as the Revised Statutes of the United States.

Unlike common law, which is subject to interpretation in its application and enforcement, the courts have little latitude when enforcing statutory laws, which are generally strictly construed by courts. Strict construction means that courts are generally not able to “read between the lines” of a statute in order to liberalize its application. Rather, they will be bound by its express terms.

Public and Private Laws 

The statutory laws passed by Congress are designated as either public laws or private laws. 

Public Laws

Public laws are laws intended for general application, such as those that apply to the nation as a whole or a class of individuals.

Public law consists of laws aimed at regulating the functioning of society. The main areas of public law are constitutional law, administrative law, procedural law, and criminal law.

Constitutional law—Centers on the determination of whether a government action—either federal or state—somehow interferes with the rights granted to individuals under the Constitution.

Administrative law—Concerns the laws and procedures developed by administrative agencies to regulate a particular subject matter.

Procedural law—Centers on the rules by which courts hear and decide the outcomes of all criminal, civil, and administrative cases.

Criminal law—Concerns the rules prohibiting harmful acts that the state directly enforces against individuals.

The subject matter of public laws ranges from highly impactful to sublime. For example, PL 117-159—The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act of 2022—was the most significant gun control law enacted in years. On the other end of the spectrum, PL 117-156—renamed a U.S. Post office in Middletown, New York.

By far the majority of the laws passed by Congress each session are public laws.

Private Laws

Private Laws affect individuals, families, or small groups of people, and are enacted to assist citizens found to have been injured by government programs or who are appealing an executive agency ruling such as an order of deportation.

For example, PVTL 106-8, enacted in 2000, provided for the relief of certain Persian Gulf evacuees by directing the Attorney General to adjust the status of specified Persian Gulf evacuees to that of an alien lawfully permanent residence status for purposes of the Immigration and Nationality Act. Enacted in 2006, PVTL 109-1, the Betty Dick Residence Protection Act, Required the Secretary of the Interior to allow Betty Dick to continue to occupy and use specified land within the boundaries of Rocky Mountain National Park for the remainder of her natural life.

Unlike public laws, private laws are not typically codified into the United States Code.

Sources

  • “Statute.” Cornell Law School. https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/statute.
  • “United States Statutes at Large.” Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/collections/united-states-statutes-at-large/about-this-collection/.
  • Jellum, Linda. “Mastering Statutory Interpretation.” Carolina Academic Press, (July 1, 2013), ISBN-10: ‎1611634563.
  • Jellum, Linda. “Mastering Legislation, Regulation, and Statutory Interpretation.” ‎Carolina Academic Press, (January 1, 2020), ISBN-10: ‎1531012027.
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Longley, Robert. "What Is Statutory Law? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Sep. 28, 2022, thoughtco.com/statutory-law-definition-and-examples-6504056. Longley, Robert. (2022, September 28). What Is Statutory Law? Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/statutory-law-definition-and-examples-6504056 Longley, Robert. "What Is Statutory Law? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/statutory-law-definition-and-examples-6504056 (accessed November 26, 2022).