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Summer Associate Research Guide: Research Legislative History

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When the language of a statute is unclear or ambiguous, attorneys will sometimes look to its legislative history to try to determine the intent or purpose of the legislature in enacting the statute.  "Legislative History" can refer both to the legislative process (the steps a bill takes on its way to becoming a law) as well as the documents generated during that process.  Legislative history is most relevant for providing background to interpret statutory language. Print resources are particularly useful for older searches, while recent legislation is probably most easily researched utilizing electronic resources.

This page provides tips for researching the Legislative History of a statute.  There are two separate subpages

Federal Legislative History

Tracking down individual legislative history documents can be a tedious process.  Fortunately, there are several sources which compile all of the documents.

The first step for using any of these sources is to find the Public Law Number for the law for which you need to track down the legislative history.  You can find it along with the text of the law in any of the codified statute sets:  the United States Code (KF 62 or online from the Web site of the U.S. House of Representatives); United States Code Annotated (KF 62 .W4 or on Westlaw); or the United States Code Service (KF 62 1972 .L38 or on Lexis).  The Public Law Number will appear at the end of the statutory text (e.g. Pub.L 107-296) and will reference the number of the Congress (107th) and the chronological order in which the law was passed (296th law).  Note that if there is more than one Public Law number listed, you will have to check the legislative history for each Public Law separately.

The most comprehensive source for compiled legislative histories CIS/Index (print KF 49 .C62, Law Reference, or online via ProQuest Congressional; Loyola user ID and password required).  CIS/Index compiles legislative history documents for all Public Laws since 1970.  Individual documents are identified with a CIS number, which can then be used to find the document in microfiche (in cabinets on the 4th floor).  If you wish to avoid using microfiche, ProQuest Congressional allows you to search by keyword for legislative history documents (from the "Advanced Search" mode) and includes the full texts of most legislative history documents produced since 1990.

Online services such as HeinOnline's U.S. Federal Legislative History Library (Loyola user ID and password required), Lexis, and Westlaw also include compiled legislative histories for major legislation.  HeinOnline is particularly helpful for finding the full texts of documents that comprise the histories of older statutes not covered by CIS (e.g. the Civil Rights Act of 1964), and also includes the Sources of Compiled Legislative Histories database, which can point you to sources (such as books and journal articles) that contain compiled legislative histories.  Sources of Compiled Legislative Histories is also available in print (KF 42.2 1979 .J6, Law Reference).

Federal legislative histories of more recent legislation are also available at Congress.gov.

A keyword search using the Library's catalog (e.g. Sarbanes Oxley legislative history), can be used to locate compiled legislative histories available in the Library.

Committee Reports are usually the most significant portion of the legislative history, and United States Code Congressional and Administrative News (a/k/a USCCAN) (Call No. KF 48 and in Westlaw) includes selected Congressional reports for legislation enacted since 1948 in the "Legislative Histories" volumes.

Illinois Legislative History

For general information about Illinois legislation, see the Illinois General Assembly web page at http:www.ilga.gov.  There are two helpful resources on the ILGA website that may be of interest:

Compiling an Illinois Legislative History

  1. Identify the Public Act number. You can find the Public Act number by checking West’s Smith-Hurd Illinois Compiled Statutes Annotated (KFI 1230 1993 .A4–3rd floor Main Stacks) or by looking up the statute in the online (unofficial) version of Illinois Compiled Statutes.  The Popular Name Index is located at the end of the General Index following the letter Z . Alternatively, you can access the free online version of the Illinois Compiled Statutes at the Illinois General Assembly website, www.ilga.gov.  No matter which version you are using, the first step is the same: Use the code section reference to look at the text of the statute, then find the source reference (in parenthesis) to find the Public Act (“PA”) and the date of enactment
  2. Find the bill number. The next step is to translate the Public Act No. into a Bill number.  In print, the first step is to find the Public Act in the relevant volume of the Laws of Illinois (KFI 1255–3rd floor Main Stacks). The Acts are in numerical order for each Session of the General Assembly; the bill number immediately follows the “PA” designation at the beginning of each Bill. At the ILGA website, the next step is to use the “Previous General Assemblies” dropdown menu to find the “Public Act to Bill Number Conversion Table” for the relevant session of the General Assembly, and use the table to find the number of the bill that became the Public Act.
  3. Find the indexes to debates. Next find a summary of the action on the bill.  In print, use the Bill number to check the  Illinois Legislative Synopsis and Digest (KFI 1207 .I4-- 3rd floor Main Stacks).   Looking in the Summary of Action on the bill, make a note of the dates of the 2d and 3d readings in both chambers (House and Senate), and the dates of hearings in committees, and the summaries of any committee amendments, and the dates of the Governor’s signing message or veto. At the ILGA website, the next step is to go back to the home page for the relevant session of the General Assembly and use the “Listing” link next to “Legislation & Laws” to locate the Public Act, and the Bill Number. Click on the Public Act/Bill Number link, and when you get to the bill text, click on Bill Status. Now, skim the online synopsis of the bill’s passage through the Illinois legislature. Floor debates in the two chambers of the General Assembly are most likely to occur on those 2d or 3d readings, so make a note of the dates on which those second and third readings of the bill took place in the Senate and in the House? (Remember that a bill is considered in both houses of the legislature.)
  4. Locate the debates. For transcripts of the floor debates of the House and Senate, while it is possible to find them on microfiche (ask a reference librarian if you want to pursue this route), it is much easier and faster, as well as free, to check the web site of the Illinois General Assembly: This is where knowing the dates and the “Legislative Day,” from the Synopsis or Journal is important. Go to the proper session of the General Assembly, by clicking on “Previous General Assemblies,” under “Additional Resources” in the lower right of the home page. Then choose the relevant Session, and select the House or Senate Transcript you wish to find. Scroll to the relevant Legislative Day and click it to pull up the transcript.  You can then browse or do a Control <F> to search within the transcript for references to your Bill number. The ILGA site does have a search function as well, so you can search the transcripts by key word.
  5. Review the House and Senate Journals. In print, you can then also use the Bill number to check both the House and Senate Journals (at KFI 1218 .H and KFI 1218 .S–3rd floor Main Stacks). In the volumes for the session number, check the indexing chart at the end of the set for all the page numbers in the relevant journal on which the bill is mentioned.  Check those page numbers, in particular for the full texts of all floor amendments; conference committee reports; and the governor’s signing statement. Other information may also be of interest; e.g. sponsors, votes in committee and on the floor.  That information is also found on the Bill Status page of the ILGA site.

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