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There are actually two questions here.

First, why are sections not in order? You have 28 USC §1 through §6, which talk about the Supreme Court, then you have §41 to §49 (appeals courts), then §81 to §144 (district courts) immediately afterwards.

Why is this? Does Congress do this sort of thing to emphasize the "separation" between the types of definitions, or is it just the case that they're "reserving" numbers in case they need to add something (like §40 before §41)? Other examples of this:

  • 17 USC §101 through §122, followed immediately by §201 to §205;
  • 22 USC § 1 through §136, followed immediately by §141 to §183;
  • 18 USC § 2381 through § 2391, followed immediately by § 2421 to § 2429.
  • 51 USC § 10101 followed by § 20101, "implying" they skipped 10,100 sections (except they didn't).

Second, why do certain portions of the US Code look like, well, these oddly listed names? Did Congress just run out of numbers or were they trying to "squeeze an entirely new section" in but couldn't quite make it?

  • 16 USC §470x-6, § 470aaa, § 590z-11, §668ss
  • 15 USC §77bbbb, 79z-6, 80b-21
  • 22 USC §2799aa-2
  • 42 USC §300mm-62, 1397mm, 2000aa-5, 2000bb-4, 2000gg-6

To me the US Code looks like, well, spaghetti code. And I know lawyers are the ones who look at it and I think they probably couldn't care less about how it looks as long as the law is there, but I'm just curious as to why they opted for the approach of sticking random letters on some of the numbers.

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  • If they did not leave gaps in the numbering, then any new clause that isn't at the end would need to renumber every subsequent clause, rendering previous quotings of the document incorrect, and create a lot of confusion. Aug 9, 2023 at 13:03

2 Answers 2

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Many of the titles in the U.S. Code are not positive codifications. Instead they are consolidations, classifications, and editorial codifications made by the Office of the Law Revision Counsel.

Title 42 (noted in phoog's answer) is not a positive codification. This means Congress did not choose its numbering scheme. Only the titles with an asterisk on this page have been enacted as positive law.

Instead, the law codified into Title 42 are the various public statutes passed by Congress over the years that the Law Revision Counsel has included in Title 42. It is the public statutes that have the force of law. See e.g. Pub. L. 98-183, whose elements the Law Revision Counsel put in Chapter 20A of Title 42.

The Law Revision Counsel says:

Title 42, The Public Health and Welfare, is a non-positive law title. Title 42 is comprised of many individually enacted Federal statutes––such as the Public Health Service Act and the Social Security Act––that have been editorially compiled and organized into the title, but the title itself has not been enacted.

Whether a provision of a public statute is included in the U.S. Code and where it will be included is determined by the Law Revision Counsel, although placement may be obvious when a statute amends an already codified statute.

As for the cramped numbering (contrary to the comment of Weather Vane, which says that insertions would require renumbering of subsequent clauses), the Law Revision Counsel says:

Chapters based on statutes that have been amended many times may have cumbersome numbering schemes with section numbers such as 16 U.S.C. 460zzz-7 and 42 U.S.C. 300ff-111.

Where the U.S. Code skips over large portions of section numbers this could be an intentional decision to leave room for growth, especially in a title that has undergone positive codification process through Congress, or it could be the result of previous sections that have been removed after repeal.

For more background, see the detailed guide from the Law Revision Counsel.

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Does Congress do this sort of thing to emphasize the "separation" between the types of definitions, or is it just the case that they're "reserving" numbers in case they need to add something (like §40 before §41)?

You could look at it both ways. The first section in a chapter or subchapter is often one more than a multiple of 100, so 1, 101, 201, etc. This emphasizes the topical grouping but it also leaves space for new sections at the end of each subchapter.

Did Congress just run out of numbers or were they trying to "squeeze an entirely new section" in but couldn't quite make it?

Yes. There are instances of both. It does create a good deal of confusion, as you've noticed.

For example, chapter 20A of title 42 comprises sections 1975, 1975a, 1975b, etc. But section 1975 also has a subsection 1975(a). Similarly, 1975a has a subsection 1975a(a). Confusing! For some reason, congress decided to squeeze almost the entirety of civil rights legislation between section 2000 and section 2001 (part of chapter 21 and all of chapters 21A through 21G). Why, I do not know.

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