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Is there any statistical data about the amount of law enacted in the United States?

For example, it would be very interesting to see how the number of laws over time has changed, how many laws there are today, or how many pages there are of enacted law.

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  • This maybe offers some insights into how this might be a bit of an impossible task blogs.loc.gov/law/2013/03/…
    – user1530
    Jul 30, 2013 at 22:14
  • Yea, it looks like the statement "number of laws" may be too general to ever be answered, but things like "number of laws in the United States Code" still look rather feasible, and relevant statistics would be equally as interesting as "number of laws."
    – Cory Klein
    Jul 30, 2013 at 22:20
  • Cory, how do you want law quantified?
    – Publius
    Aug 1, 2013 at 3:34
  • @Avi by amount in existence. Or by amount enacted. Or by amount removed. Or any combination thereof.
    – Cory Klein
    Aug 1, 2013 at 14:39
  • 2
    And how are you defining "amount"? That was my question.
    – Publius
    Aug 1, 2013 at 15:15

2 Answers 2

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Overview

Is there any statistical data about the amount of law enacted in the United States?

For example, it would be very interesting to see how the number of laws over time has changed, how many laws there are today, or how many pages there are of enacted law.

This information exists, but it isn't as useful or as helpful a source of insight as you would think.

From the perspective of the average person interacting with the law, one of the key things to understand is that the lion's share of statutory law and government regulations, by number of pages, is related to the internal organization of government, and to the regulation of highly self-contained regulatory systems in particular industries. It wouldn't be uncommon for 80%-90% of the case law in a particular volume of statutes to involve interpretation of ten to twenty pages of the laws in the volume of the codified laws that has 500-1000 pages in all.

For example, there are mountains of statutes and regulations pertaining to the environmental standards that must be met by factories and power plants, and how the agencies that police these laws operate. But, unless you are an environmental regulator or environmental action group, or you run a factory or a power plant, you don't know and don't need to know how these laws work at the primary source level. Indeed, most practicing lawyers have no idea beyond the vaguest outline, what these statutes and regulations say, or what the very thin case law interpreting these statutes and regulations say.

The law used by 90% of lawyers that impacts the general public, a combination of what is called "private law" and "criminal law" and individual tax law, for the most part, makes up maybe 10% of the total volume of statutory enactments and maybe 80% of all case law.

Also, while we have federalism, in reality, lawmakers aren't very original, and lots of the law in one state or local government is very similar to that of other states, or other similarly situated local governments. Voluminous building codes, for example, are typically incorporated by reference in local ordinances with only slight local customization, but one of several versions of them in 98% identical for almost every locality with a building code.

But, what most lawyers and citizens need to know to function can be summarized quite completely in books that would take up maybe two shelves of a bookcase and doesn't grow nearly as quickly as the volume of raw input in terms of statutes, ordinances, regulations, and case law.

Statutory Law

Data on bills enacted by Congress since 1983 can be found here. In this time period the number of bills passed per two year session has ranged from 430 to 1229. The key columns since 2007 are as follows:

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Some bills are short and of little importance (e.g. naming a post office), while some are long omnibus bills that incorporate many subjects, so the raw numbers are rather arbitrary. Each of these enacted bills is assigned a public law number and can be reviewed here.

Of course, that doesn't include laws enacted by the 50 state governments, by the District of Columbia, by Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the Marshall Islands, or ordinances enacted by local governments.

Most federal laws of general effect and permanent or indefinite duration, but not all enacted bills, are codified in the United States Code. The United States Code omits private bills (affecting only a few people, like someone's immigration application) and time limited effect provisions of appropriation bills.

The United States Code Annotated (with brief references to cases interpreting it) looks like this:

enter image description here

The first full version of the United States Code was published in 1926, and an edition has been published in print every six years since then with supplements called "pocket parts" updating it between full printing. The 1925 edition published in 1926 was about 80,000 pages long. The 1988 edition was about 160,000 pages long.

The United States Code has as its source, individual statutes that sometimes add, sometimes amend, and sometimes repeal, existing sections of the the U.S. statutory law. So, counting "how many laws" there are is ill defined. One statutory section could be the product of a dozen statutes, another large part of a single title of the United States Code could have been enacted with a single statute.

A parallel process exists for every state, territorial and local government. The codified and annotated laws of a typical U.S. state take about two shelves of a typical sized bookcase.

A typical local government code ordinances, printed out, is about the size of a large single volume book like an unabridged dictionary (perhaps 500 to 1500 pages long). There are about 3,000 county governments and about 19,000 municipal governments in the United States, in addition to many school district and special district governments whose codified governing documents and enactments are about the size of a high school yearbook when printed out.

Regulations

It also doesn't include regulations, which are standards for applying laws adopted by executive branch officials with legislative authority to do so from statutes that largely have the force of law.

At the federal level this is codified in a Code of Federal Regulations whose length gradually grows as shown below, and each state has a similar code.

enter image description here

The Code of Federal Regulations is currently on the same order of magnitude in length as the United States Code. Some U.S. statutes, like Title 26 (the Internal Revenue Code) have far more volumes of regulations than they have statutory text. Others areas of statutory law have few regulations such as the federal criminal code, whose regulatory interpretation largely takes the form of appellate case law.

Case Law

And, it also doesn't include the mixed process of law making and law interpretation that takes place in U.S. Courts.

In terms of sheer volume, the accumulated printed reports of precedent making cases in the courts is by far the greatest. The total accumulated case law of the United States at all levels of government consists of well over ten thousand encyclopedia sized volumes in print and takes bookcases the size of a small gymnasium to hold on one floor.

The image below gives you a feel of what a small portion in one aisle of case reporters looks like in print.

enter image description here

These days, almost all case law is utilized by legal professionals primarily in electronic form from a centralized database, rather than in hard copy volumes like this, a change that took place gradually over about twenty years starting around the mid-1980s and pretty much running its course to a full transition to electronic form by about 2005.

Case law in hard copy also has to be accompanied by a reference the dominant version of which was called Shepard's citations, so you could determine if a case was modified or overruled by later cases. This would require about one bookshelf of space per thousand or so volumes of cases and made heavy use of space saving abbreviations.

This expands every year as new cases are decided, although only a small percentage of the total case load of appellate court decisions are published and have full law making effect.

When I started practicing law in the early 1990s, every law firm had a large conference room sized library of paper books containing court cases and statutes and other legal authorities. Now, this is mostly for show and most law firms have only a couple of book cases full of books that get used in their legal practice on a regular basis.

Authoritative Secondary Authorities

There would also be several bookcases of legal treatises, legal dictionaries, commentaries and other secondary legal sources that are considered so authoritative that they are routinely cited by courts to justify their decisions.

Related Matters

Some posts at Law.SE have addressed similar questions including the following:

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George Mason University's Mercator group watches this

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  • 4
    Regulatory Restrictions != Laws
    – Joe W
    Jun 15, 2022 at 15:10

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