Legislative History

From the Tarlton Law Library, a Federal Legislative History Timeline

As a new librarian, I am still settling into my role as the go-to person for answering all kinds of legal research questions from all kinds of patrons, from students and faculty to the general public.  One research question that rates high on my list of “Dreadful Inquiries” is the ever-popular legislative history research question.  So, with a conscious effort to ease that anxiety, I decided to sit in on an Advanced Legal Research class offered by my colleague, Professor A. Hayes Butler.  This class was the inspiration for my last post on Administrative Law Research.

Why would you need a legislative history?  Legislative histories help “provide context for vague or ambiguous statutes.” (That’s a direct quote from Professor Butler, ladies and gents!). There are different schools of thought surrounding the relevancy and legitimacy of legislative histories, from Justice Scalia’s flat-out rejection of legislative history as an interpretive method to Justice Breyer’s willingness to incorporate the law-making process into interpreting the final text of the statute.*

So what exactly are you looking for when looking for a legislative history? There are several documents involved in a legislative history (cue School House Rock music), and they are: bills -> hearings -> reports -> debates -> public laws -> statutes.

For some statutes, compiled legislative histories already exist. This means someone may have already found all of those relevant documents and organized them for you.  Sources of compiled federal legislative histories can be found online.  Should you not have access to the subscription services, like Westlaw and HeinOnline, that offer compiled legislative histories, you might try the legislative histories offered by the Law Librarians’ Society of Washington, D.C.

If you have to put together your own legislative history, it helps to know the year of the statute, so that you know where to look:

  • 1817-1980: US Congressional Serial Set
  • 1970-present: Congressional Information Service (CIS)
  • 1980-present:Westlaw/LexisNexis
  • 1995-present: THOMAS

I can probably fill a whole new blog post with information that I can give you about these sources, but I have no intention of doing that, at least not anytime in the near present (sorry if I got your hopes up).  If you need help finding or using any one of these sources, please do not hesitate to see a reference librarian.

You might be able to find legislative history information from two more additional sources:

  • U.S. Code Congressional & Administrative News (USCCAN), which is keyed to the United States Code Annotated and and offers a “quick and dirty” legislative history for many statutes, or
  • Congressional Quarterly, which publishes articles on congressional actions.

I strongly encourage all students  to take this class with Professor Butler.  This class is an excellent fit for students interested in many areas of practice, both litigation and transactional. I guarantee that, even if you already know a little something about legislative and administrative research, you will still benefit from learning more, especially when you need to research for your other classes and work on  real-world projects after you graduate.

Shameless endorsement: Professor Butler is not just a wonderful professor, but he is an educator sincerely interested in sharing valuable information with budding legal minds.  If you have the means and opportunity to take any advanced legal research class with him, you will come out of it as a much stronger researcher.

*Additional Sources:

Legislative History: The Philosophies of Justices Scalia and Breyer and the Use of Legislative History by the Wisconsin State Courts, by Kenneth R. Dortzbach.

Federal Legislative History Research, Timeline. Available from the Tarlton Law Library at the University of Texas School of Law.  Available at http://tarltonguides.law.utexas.edu/content.php?pid=104708&sid=2797763.

Written by CDS.


Administrative Law Research

This chart came from the GSU Law Library Introduction to Legal Research guide.

It is no surprise that many second- and third- (and sometimes even fourth- and fifth-) year law students cannot explain the difference between a regulation and a statute; it’s not exactly a hot-topic in the first-year curriculum.  This gap in knowledge leads to a lot of uncertainty in the area of administrative law research.

So, what is administrative law, exactly? Simply:

  1. Legislation. A statute (passed by the legislative branch) creates an administrative agency; this statute should also state the purpose, mission, and jurisdiction of this agency.
  2. Regulations. Agencies act on behalf of some public interest or need, and may issue both regulations and decisions, offering further guidance in that area of law where a regulation remains open to interpretation or has been violated by some action, respectively.
  3. Administrative Law. Much like statutes produced through legislative activities, these regulations define, prohibit, or require specified activities. These regulations tend to be very detailed in order to “fill in gaps” left open by broad legal framework of the authorizing statute.

Okay, so then what?  Here are some key sources to know for administrative law:

  • Federal Register. This is a daily publication of proposed rules, final rules, and public notices from federal agencies, published in chronological order.  The final rule sets the effective date of that regulation.
    • The table of contents of each publication offers a list of agencies that have new rules (regulations).
    • Each rule and notice is accompanied by contact information for an expert on that regulation within the promulgating agency.
    • The body of the Order is the legislative history.
    • A citation to the Code of Federal Regulations is given at the end of the Order (where applicable)
  • Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). This is an annual publication of all Federal regulations, arranged by subject! There are currently 50 titles of the CFR, each representing a broad topical area for regulation, arranged by agency!
    • Annual new volumes of the CFR only contain regulations that were in effect on its publication date.
    • The Government Printing Office (GPO) updates a specific range of CFR titles each quarter, as opposed to updating all 50 titles all at once. The updating schedule can be found from GPO website.

What about agency decisions? In addition to regulation-making authority, some agencies have the authority to interpret their regulations by issuing opinions (judgments) arising from alleged violations of the regulations. These opinions may be found in agency-published reporters, subject-specific loose-leaf or online services, like BNA, or in subscription databases, like Westlaw and Lexis.

One last bit of useful information: If you’re not sure what federal agency is responsible for a given industry or area of law, check out the U.S. Government Manual (a print copy is available at the reference desk).  This publication contains a listing of every federal agency, including its functions and its mission.  Another useful source is USA.gov or the agency website, itself! Our law library has a list of some select agencies with links directly to their homepages.

One of my colleagues here at the law library, Prof. A. Hays Butler , teaches  an advanced legal research course on administrative law and legislative history; I had the great privilege of being able to sit in on this class earlier this semester.  I’d love to tell you more about this class, so stay tuned for the legislative history blog post!

Additional Sources:

Georgetown Law Library, Administrative Law Research Tutorial, part 2.

Georgia State University College of Law Library. Introduction to Legal Research Guide. Available from http://libguides.law.gsu.edu/content.php?pid=154797.

Written by CDS.

Bloomberg BNA

Screenshot from http://www.bna.com/

Most law students are familiar with using Westlaw and LexisNexis for legal research projects.  Both of these competitors offer enormous amounts of legal information, are developing ever-more user-friendly search formats, help you confirm that your citations are good law, and contain a wealth of secondary sources.

As great as these products are, they are not the only game in town.  The Law Library offers members of the Law School community subscription access to a number of other online legal research resources.   These specialized databases can help you get a new perspective on an area of law, find primary authorities, and keep current on legal news.

Our collection includes access to legal research tools from Bloomberg BNA (formerly the Bureau of National Affairs).  Bloomberg BNA offers online databases and publications tailored to serve the interests of lawyers and researchers working in dozens of areas of law, including labor and employment, corporate practice, health care, criminal law, tax, banking, and intellectual property.   In addition to reporting developments in legislation, regulation, and case law, Bloomberg BNA’s specialized collections also offer searchable full text of many cases, statutes, and regulations, practice guides, electronic treatises, and legal news and analysis from notable practitioners and other experts.  These tools are an excellent way to learn about different areas of the law, develop topics for research papers and note-writing, and keep current in your practice.

We encourage you to take a look through our Bloomberg BNA collection.  As always, don’t hesitate to ask a librarian if you’d like more information.

Written by Genevieve Tung.