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How come the flag has only 48 stars, Daddy?

grandoldrag.jpgAbout once a week, we get a note from somebody who’s been reading 4 USC 1:

The flag of the United States shall be thirteen horizontal stripes, alternate red and white; and the union of the flag shall be forty-eight stars, white in a blue field.

Usually it’s accompanied by a snide remark about our up-to-date materials, or an expression of concern for our mental health. Our eccentricity takes a different form — we try to figure out how and why these things happen. Turns out that the remaining two stars were added by executive order (you can see this in the Notes to 4 USC 1). The algorithm (“one star per state”) is given in 4 USC 2.

There are lessons in this for the novice researcher who’s reading statutes:

  1. Always, always read the notes.
  2. It’s a good idea to look at the sections of the US Code or CFR that are adjacent to the one you (or the search engine) thought you wanted. Taking a look at the “embracing” table of contents — the one that includes the particular section you’re looking at — is usually a good idea, too. Often they have important and helpful information — or they show you what you were really looking for.

Oh, and the way legal information is organized makes no sense, anyway.