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.


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