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Compiling State Legislative Histories

Since statutory language is written broadly and can be ambiguous, it is often the researcher’s job to determine the precise meaning of a statutory provision. That determination is the primary purpose of compiling a “legislative history.” The secondary function of a legislative history is to document the legislative process through the record of publications associated with a piece of legislation. Although the need to determine intent is just as valuable for state statutes as for federal statutes, the research sources available on the state level are far less abundant and the research process is much more fragmented.

LEGISLATIVE PUBLICATIONS, the various documents needed to trace the legislative process, are generally unavailable and vary widely from one state to the next.

  • Bills are often available only through the state legislature, but are the most reliable of the legislative publications. The versions of the bill as it proceeds and goes through textual changes throughout the legislative process may be the only way to determine the legislators’ intent.

  • Hearings are rarely published.

  • Committee Reports are only published by a handful of states and, even so, may not provide the same detailed rationale for committee action that is found in Congressional Committee reports.

  • Debates are almost non-existent.

  • Legislative Journals are published by most states, but have limited value beyond providing a brief description of daily activities of the legislature.

SECONDARY SOURCES may the most helpful tools in determining the intent of legislation.

  • Law Review articles may provide an analysis of a specific issue that has been addressed (or should be addressed) by the state legislature.

  • Legal research manuals and bibliographies that describe legislative material are often available for state specific research.

  • Legislative Research Agencies that research, draft and recommend new legislation issue studies on given topics that often result in enactments. These studies are rarely attached to specific legislation.

  • Legislative Guides may list the legislative publications available for each state, contact information and the legislative process for each state. Here are two publication titles that are particularly useful:

    • Manz, William H., Guide to State Legislative and Administrative Material, 2002 ed. (Reference KF1 .G8 2002)
    • State Legislative Sourcebook: A Resource Guide to Legislative Information in the Fifty States, annual Reference JK 2495 .S689)

THE INTERNET is allowing a growing number of state legislative bodies to expand the accessibility of state materials and often include bill tracking and bill digest features.