Statutory Publication Metaphor: Robin Hood

One of the most difficult parts of statutory research for beginners is learning that statutes are published in two formats: chronological laws and codified laws. In the US, federal legislation is first published as a slip opinion and then bound into a volume of the Statutes at Large. These documents are useful for a researcher who wants to answer questions about intent or statutory language, as you want to see the entire law as it appeared when it was passed. However, most of the time a legal researcher merely needs to know what the law is at this moment on a particular topic. If a researcher wants to know the laws on hunting, they should not compare twenty pages of the statutes at large which chronologically amended the laws of hunting. They should look at the codified laws.

Students struggle with this concept as it is so different from any common publication system. When I teach statutory or regulatory research I use a lot of charts: charts of the life cycle of legislation, charts comparing the Statutes at Large to the Federal Register (both chronologically published) and the United States Code to the Code of Federal Regulations (both are codifications). The most helpful way to remember the difference is to call on students’ imagination in a metaphor.

I ask my students to picture the time of Robin Hood or King Arthur; a time of armor and knights and parchment. I ask them to picture the day a law was decreed. I usually don’t even mention that at that point in history there was no powerful legislature and laws were decreed by the king or dictator, but the metaphor holds even though it’s the wrong branch of government. I ask them to picture a person holding a scroll reading a new law to the illiterate peasants. I hold my arms out as if unrolling a scroll and loudly declare “on this day we have passed a new law and the law says…” Then I ask my students to imagine that all of those scrolls are flattened out and become a book. I know that scrolls were certainly not flattened and bound into books, but if they were, the book would be made up of one law after another, a day-by-day and page-by-page record of chronological lawmaking.

I remind my students that if you want to know what the law is today, you look at a code of law. Hypothetically, if you wanted to know if you could hunt deer in a forest today, you would open the code and look up the section on hunting and find that hunting is not permitted in that forest. But if you want to know the legislative intent (or dictatorial intent) behind a particular law, you don’t want to look at the code. You won’t know if the law was passed to punish Robin Hood or if the restriction on hunting was enacted for economic or safety reasons. If you look for intent in the chronological law instead, you may find a series of increasingly desperate proclamations by the Sheriff of Nottingham, criminalizing wearing green hoods and levying additional taxes on the already-poor in an attempt to catch Robin Hood.

Is my metaphor silly? Of course. But like the idea of Robin Hood or the legend of Camelot, sometimes a metaphor can have a big impact.


  1. Aren’t slip opinions the non-final version of US court judgments? I didn’t think they were a part of the legislative process. We don’t use that terminology here in Canada.

    Likewise, we don’t use the expression Codified. We use the word Consolidated to describe up-to-date statutes or regulations that have incorporated all of the past amendments. Annual statutes and Regulations as Filed would be the Canadian equivalent of chronological legislation or statutes at large. On the official Ontario eLaws website, this legislation is called Source law.

    I teach my students that one way of trying to understand Annual legislation and Consolidated law is to think of a large extended family that has an annual family picnic. The photos taken at the family picnic would be the Consolidation, whereas certain family members (annual legislation) may have been born, died, remarried and changed their name, etc since the last picnic. This example works well with the Kardashians, and makes for a great Powerpoint, lol!!

  2. Amelia Landenberger

    You are right and I had a slip of the tongue (or keyboard). I meant session law, not slip opinion! Thank you!