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Positive Law

[1] Why is there a specialized meaning for the term “positive law” with respect to the United States Code, and why is this term used despite the potential for confusion with the broader meaning given to the identical term in legal philosophy? The answer involves a historical solution to a statutory drafting problem. For generations, Congress has used the term “positive law” when it enacts a title of the Code, as such, into statutory law. For example, section 1 of the Act of July 30, 1947 (1 U.S.C. note prec. 1), provides in relevant part: “Title 1 of the United States Code entitled ‘General Provisions’, is codified and enacted into positive law . . . .” (emphasis added). Earlier legislative drafters chose the term “positive law” in order to capture the abstract distinction between a title of the Code that has been enacted, as such, versus a title of the Code that has not been enacted, as such, but that sets forth enacted statutes. More literally, this distinction might be expressed as “enacted title” versus “non-enacted title”, but those literal terms are problematic since they incorrectly suggest that provisions set forth in a “non-enacted title” of the Code have not been enacted. Those provisions have been enacted, but as part of a number of freestanding statutes rather than as part of an enacted (positive law) title. The specialized use of the term “positive law” in this situation captures the abstract distinction between the two types of titles in the Code, and the use of the term in this way is now well established.

[2] “Positive law typically consists of enacted law—the codes, statutes, and regulations that are applied and enforced in the courts. The term derives from the medieval use of positum (Latin “established”), so that the phrase positive law literally means law established by human authority.” Black’s Law Dictionary 1200 (8th ed. 2004).

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