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Pennsylvania Legal Research

This guide provides an overview of researching Pennsylvania law .

Pennsylvania Constitution

The Pennsylvania Constitution represents the supreme law of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The first post-colonial Constitution was enacted in 1776, and subsequent Constitutions were adopted in 1790, 1838, 1874, and 1968.

Article I contains a declaration of rights.

Article II creates the legislature and defines its powers.

Article III governs the legislative process, the public school system, and the Pennsylvania National Guard, and places certain restrictions on legislative power.

Article IV creates the Executive Department and the offices of Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General.

Article V creates the Unified Judicial System.

Article VI provides for the selection of public officers not provided for in the Constitution.

Article VII governs elections.

Article VIII governs taxation and finance.

Article IX governs local governments.

Article X deals with private corporations and compensation for property taken under eminent domain.

The Legislative Process

The Legislative Process

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives has published Making Law, a good overview of the Pennsylvania legislative process.  The Pennsylvania General Assembly has published The Biography of a Bill, which also discusses the legislative process in text and graphics and gives tips on how to read a legislative bill.

Pennsylvania makes law through a bicameral legislature. Pennsylvania has a 50-member Senate (whose members are elected for four-year terms) and a 203-member House of Representatives (whose members are elected for two-year terms).

The first step in lawmaking is for a member to submit a written idea to the Legislative Reference Bureau, which is the bill drafting agency of the General Assembly, outlining the substance of what he or she desires the proposed law to include. The bill is drafted, and the member signs it, thereby assuming its sponsorship.

Once the bill is filed with the Secretary-Parliamentarian of the Senate or the Chief Clerk of the House, it is then referred to committee. The committee may amend the bill, advance it to the floor without amendments, or not advance it to the floor at all.

Article III, Section 4 of the Pennsylvania Constitution requires that each bill be considered on three different days in each body. On third consideration, the bill may be advanced on a majority vote.

Once a bill has been advanced by one house, it is transmitted to the other and goes through a similar process of committee referral and three days of consideration. Should this second body make changes, the amended bill goes back to the first body.  If they cannot agree on the amendments, the bill may go to a Conference Committee made up of three members of each body.

When a bill has passed in both houses, it is signed by the President of the Senate and Speaker of the House and transmitted to the Governor for signature. If the Governor approves, he or she signs the bill and it becomes a law. If the Governor vetoes the bill, it is returned to its house of origin. The General Assembly may override a veto with a two-thirds vote in the Senate and the House.

Once a bill has become a law, the official certified copy is transmitted to the Secretary of the Commonwealth, given an act number, and filed with the State Department. It then loses its identity as a bill and becomes an "Act of the General Assembly."

Publication and Codification

After the bill become an Act of the General Assembly, the Legislative Reference Bureau will prepare the act for printing and publish it.

During a legislative session, enacted statutes are printed individually in a format officially referred to as "slip laws." At the end of a session, the slip laws are combined into a bound volume or volumes which are officially referred to as the "Laws of Pennsylvania." However, because they are not organized by subject matter, these publications of the law are difficult to use for most day-to-day purposes.

Pennsylvania legislation has been partially "consolidated" (reorganized and codified) as part of a program initiated by the act of November 25, 1970 (P.L. 707, No. 230). Those consolidated laws are published in the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes.  Statutes not yet consolidated still use an older, unofficial codification scheme and are referred to as Pennsylvania Statutes or Purdon's (after the entity that published the unofficial codification).

Important Research Considerations

Because Pennsylvania is still in the process of officially codifying its statutes, statutory research involves looking at both the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes and the unconsolidated statutes.  The Consolidated Statutes are available on the Pennsylvania General Assembly website and on Westlaw and Lexis; the unconsolidated statutes also are available on the Pennsylvania General Assembly website, but without the unofficial codification scheme, which can be found in Westlaw or Lexis.

Only statutes of a permanent nature are codified.  Legislation that is intended to be temporary in nature (for example, appropriation acts) is not codified.

Statutes are not the only source of law.  Pennsylvania's administrative bodies also promulgate regulations on a wide variety of subjects. For more information about administrative research, check the "Administrative Law" section of this LibGuide.

Statutes

Legislative Websites

Legislative History

A legislative history is the collection of documents produced during the legislative process - that is, the documents produced during the process of making the statute.  A legislative history, among other things, can help to interpret a statute's language or discern its intent.

Step 1: Locate the Act Number & Bill Number

Legislative histories are compiled using citations to acts and bills, not citations to codified statutes. Locate the statute that you are interested in using Westlaw or Lexis. In Lexis, the act number and bill number should be displayed in the 'History' section at the bottom of the page. In Westlaw, click on the 'Credits' link to pull up the text of the act, which includes the act number and bill number.

If you do not have access to Westlaw or Lexis, you still can compile a legislative history.  Find the statute on the Pennsylvania General Assembly website Statutes page and look for "Enactment" and "Amendment" information, which will note the years the changes occurred and the act number. 

Step 2: Locate the History Entry

The Pennsylvania legislature has posted historical summaries for all legislation enacted from 1975-present (for amendatory acts, 1990-present).

  • If you know the bill number:  Go to the General Assembly's Legislation page, click on the year the legislation was approved, and click on the appropriate bill number. You will see three tabs, one for the text of the bill, one for the history of the bill, and one for the votes on the bill.
  • If you know the act number:  Go to the General Assembly's Legislation page and scroll to the "By Legislation Enacted" search option.  Enter the year and act number to find the text, history, and votes.

Once you pull up the bill, click on "[History]" to see versions of the bill (denoted with a "PN") and a chronological list of events related to the bill.

Step 3: Locate Committee Materials

The bill history will note which Committees the bill was referred to.  These Committees may generate a report on the bill or hold hearings.  Some House Committee transcripts and reports are available on the Pennsylvania General Assembly website.  If Committee materials are not available online, you will need to contact the Pennsylvania Senate's Library, the Pennsylvania House Archives, or the Pennsylvania State Archives to obtain a copy.

Step 4: Locate House and Senate Legislative Journal Entries

Any remarks or debates will be listed in the bill history. You can find the corresponding entries in the online House Legislative Journals (available 1935 - present) and Senate Legislative Journals (available 1949 - present). 

Note

Pennsylvania legislative histories only can be completed online for acts passed after 1975 (for amendatory acts, only after 1990). If you are interested in the legislative history of an early act, you will have to consult the print History of House Bills or History of Senate Bills.