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Federal Legislative History: Welcome

Find the purpose or intent of a law by researching its legislative history.

This guide

This guide describes federal legislative history documents, lists finding aids to access them and supplies documents' and indexes' locations in the Law Library.
 
The historical note sections of annotated federal codes often provide Public Law numbers, bill numbers, dates and amendment information.  These will serve as access points in the document indexes and collections and will help you retrieve the full-text materials for your research.

What is Legislative History?

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Legislative history refers to the documents produced during the ratification process.  These include the many reports and materials used by members of Congress in the investigation, consideration, drafting and reporting of legislation, both the “inputs and outputs” of the process.  Committee and floor debates and votes may also be used in legislative history research.

Legislative history is distinct from updating the law (e.g., Shepardizing) in that it is concerned with materials produced BEFORE the bill became law, rather than the analysis, interpretation and application of the law subsequent to its passage.
 
“Doing a legislative history” refers to identifying, compiling and analyzing these documents to learn the intended purpose of the legislation, the so-called, “legislative intent.”
 
While all proposed bills, whether successful or not, may produce paper trails, only enacted legislation is said to have a legislative history.  However, documentary analysis and bill tracking can be done for failed or pending bills, particularly as more and more material is becoming available online.

Why do Legislative History?

Researchers undertake legislative histories to learn the “what, why and how” of a piece of legislation. If what a law states or intends to affect is at issue, a legislative history may supply evidence of its original purpose. Language and interpretation is often under scrutiny but legislative history research can also reveal whether or not particular situations or jurisdictions were considered or help assess Congress members’ performance and voting actions.

For more information, see

[Sutherland on] Statutes and Statutory Construction, by Norman J. Singer and J.D. Shambie Singer (7th ed., 2007).
**This treatise is the bible on statutes. Volume 2A has legislative history discussion.**

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SUTHERLAND
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The Theory and Practice of Statutory Interpretation, by Frank B. Cross (2009).

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Statutory Interpretation: General Principles and Recent Trends, by Yule Kim (2009).


Stephen Breyer, On the Uses of Legislative History in Interpreting Statutes, 65 S. Cal. L. Rev. 845 (1992).

Charles Tiefer, The Reconceptualization of Legislative History in the Supreme Court, 2000 Wis. L. Rev. 205.

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