Research Guides

TMLL Research Guide - Chapter 5


Deciding on research goals

Searching for legislative history on either the federal or state level can be a time consuming task. It is an activity that most researchers do not undertake routinely; however, in the many areas in which statutes are involved, the question of what the legislature intended is often raised.

At the federal level, legislative history was regularly cited in opinions of the Supreme Court and Courts of Appeals through the 1980s. In more recent years, Justices Scalia and Kennedy have been vocal opponents of its use, and citations to legislative history by the Supreme Court are not as pervasive as in the past. However, there are still many such references in current opinions. At the state level, availability has always been an issue, although recent efforts to maintain bill files in a systematic fashion have improved the situation.

The first step in this process is to determine the purpose of the research and to decide whether a cursory or an in-depth search is necessary.

Gathering information

In traditional legal research, gathering references to cases and statutes and reading the actual text are often not discrete steps. A researcher finds a cite to a statute that appears relevant and proceeds to read it, coming back to the index or to the initial online source later to make sure that all important sources have been found.

To do efficient legislative history research, however, it is essential to spend time at the beginning gathering information. While the code is the logical starting point, many of the

documents are accessible only by bill number or other references that are not included in

the current code. It is important to understand that legislative history material is all referenced by the session law, rather than the code, citation.  Information items that should be determined at the outset include, at a minimum:

  • Session law number (e.g., for federal statutes, the public law number)
  • Bill number(s)

The session law information can be found at the end of the relevant code section(s), while the bill number is usually included in the session law, as well as in various tables published with a jurisdiction’s legislative materials.

Compiled federal legislative histories

For purposes of learning the legislative history process, it is important that students attempt to use the various sources to see how one would go about compiling a legislative history. It should be noted, however, that sometimes it is possible to find federal legislative histories that others have compiled.

  • Sources of Compiled Legislative Histories by Nancy Johnson (Ref. KF42.2.J69) covers laws beginning with the 1st Congress. Also available in HeinOnline.
  • Union List of Legislative Histories (7th ed.) by the Law Librarians’ Society of Washington, D.C. (Ref. KF 4.U644) lists legislative histories, both compiled in-house and acquired from published sources, that are held by Washington area libraries.  They also have an online Legislative Source Book with compiled legislative histories.
  • For recent Congresses, most of the material in a federal legislative history will be available electronically on, GPO FDsys or commercial services.
  • You can also try searching the online catalog by the name of the statute.

The next sections deal specifically with federal and Maryland legislative history research.  For legislative history of laws of other states it is best to consult a librarian.  Our library does not generally carry legislative history materials for states other than Maryland, and it may be necessary in some cases to either contact the state’s legislative library or visit a law or legislative library in that state.  It is also possible to find more recent materials on the Web.

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