Research Guides

TMLL Research Guide - Chapter 4


Session Laws

Session laws are individual enactments of a legislative body, state or federal, as signed by the executive, governor or president, or passed over the executive’s veto.  They are published chronologically.  An individual session law may be only a sentence long or it may be hundreds of pages long.  It may deal with only one very finite topic, or it may deal with dozens of totally unrelated topics.  Many states, Maryland included, limit an individual session law to just one topic.  At the other extreme, enactments of the United States Congress may, and often do, deal with many disparate topics, totally unrelated to one another.


Because researchers want to find statutes on a particular topic, not those signed into law on a particular date, the chronological publication scheme of session laws, even with the assistance of a good subject index, offers little to the researcher.  Therefore, topical compilations of laws currently in effect were created.  These published compilations of statutes are referred to as codes. They are organized topically and include multi-volume indexes for subject access. Each state code has its own system of subject organization and its own numbering scheme.  At the federal level, statutes are organized into numbered and named titles.  Within each title, the topic is further subdivided into chapters, subchapters and sections.  Table T.1 (United States Jurisdictions) of the Bluebook contains a listing of the available codes for each jurisdiction, federal and state.

When a session law is signed into law by the executive, it is codified into this pre-existing topical outline known as the code.  Except in rare cases, the text of the codified legislation will be identical to the session law.  A session law may amend an existing section of the code by adding (or deleting) a paragraph or a sentence or a word or something as small as a point of punctuation.  Other times a session law will add or repeal an entire section, or sections, of the code.  A session law may be editorially pulled apart and affect many different sections of the code or it may be dropped, intact, into just one place.  Each state legislature and the United States Congress enact from hundreds to more than a thousand session laws every year.  The codification of these new session laws into their respective codes is what makes statutory codes organic entities that must always be used in the most up-to-date form.  A code that contains the statutes currently in force in that jurisdiction is published for each state. Most of these codes are commercially published.  Laws of a few states, as well as the federal laws, appear in more than one commercially published version. The text of the statute provisions is the same, but the format and ancillary information may be different.

Annotated and unannotated codes

In addition to the text of the statutes passed by the legislature, annotated codes contain a number of cross-references to other materials which are very useful to the researcher. Chief among these are references to cases in which courts of the jurisdiction have applied, interpreted or discussed the code provisions. Also useful are cross-references to law review or other periodical articles, treatises, or other secondary sources which cite or discuss the statute section. Unannotated codes contain only the statutory language itself, not cross-references to related material. Virtually all of the commercially published state codes are annotated. The federal code is available in one unannotated and two annotated versions.  Usually the annotated version is more useful for research.

Updating print codes

Print versions of the state and federal codes are supplemented by annual pocket parts, which are pamphlets that are kept in the back cover of each code volume. Sometimes separate paper bound supplementary volumes are published instead of, or in addition to, pocket parts. Additionally, a set of pamphlets containing new and amended statutes enacted during the current or most recent session of the legislature, “session laws,” are frequently found at the end of a code set.

Electronic sources for statutory and constitutional research

Bloomberg Law, Lexis, and Westlaw contain full versions of the codes and constitution from each state as well as the U.S. Code and the U.S. Constitution.  Lexis and Westlaw include annotations.  Online versions of the state and federal codes in Lexis and Westlaw are updated more frequently than print to incorporate new and amending session laws enacted during the most recent session of the legislature. The annotation material as well as the updating schedule may vary. Lexis and Westlaw also contain databases covering materials from the most recent legislative session which may not yet be integrated into the code databases.  When the content is integrated into the code database, Lexis and Westlaw will alert the researcher of pending legislation that may impact a code section.

The Internet also contains versions of the federal code and U.S. Constitution and many state codes and constitutions. As with other types of legal materials, one must use caution in the areas of currency and authoritative nature of the materials.

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