Reference from Coast to Coast – State Legislative History

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Jan Bissett is a Reference Librarian in the Bloomfield Hills, Michigan office of Dickinson Wright PLLC. She is a past president of the Michigan Association of Law Libraries and has published articles on administrative and research related topics in the Michigan Association of Law Libraries Newsletter and Michigan Defense Quarterly. She and Margi Heinen team teach Legal Information Sources and Services for Wayne State University’s Library and Information Science Program in Detroit, Michigan.

Margi Heinen is the Librarian at Jaffe, Raitt, Heuer & Weiss in Detroit, Michigan. She teaches Legal Resources at the University of Michigan’s School of Information and is team teaching with her co-columnist, Jan Bissett, at Wayne State University’s School of Library and Information Science. She regularly does Internet training of legal staff at her firm and recently collaborated with Kathleen Gamache on an I.P.E. presentation, Internet Strategies for the Paralegal in Michigan. She is active in the Law Librarians of Metro Detroit and is a member of the American Association of Law Libraries.

One of the most frustrating and confusing reference demands is the request for legislative history of a state statute.Frustrating because expectations and results often reside on opposite ends of the spectrum; confusing because each state legislature functions differently – without the comforting profusion of documents familiar to us from Federal legislation.Add to this murky situation that attorneys requesting legislative history frequently do so when all else has failed and time is short.

What do we mean by legislative history and what does it do for us?Legislative history is generally understood to be the pre-enactment history of a statute.This history may be requested for one of several purposes and the researcher is wise to determine the goal of the inquiry before proceeding.Requests usually consist of one or more of these segments:

Pending Legislation:Is a state legislature considering specific legislation? Which of the 50 states have introduced legislation on a topic?To answer these questions you need access to the full-text of introduced legislation and a reasonably good search engine.

Status or Bill Tracking:Often a second step to the “pending legislation” question, you may know of introduced legislation but need to know if it has passed one legislative body; become law; been vetoed.To be comprehensive and confident dealing when with these questions, it is helpful to find information on when the legislative session ends or is in recess.Some state legislatures meet most of each year – others meet only every other year.

Intent:The most elusive of legislative history requests, finding intent, is the most frustrating of the three.Few state legislatures make a habit of clearly explaining their actions.Some states have persuasive materials such as reports or analyses of legislation, but they are rare and not always on-line.

Where to begin? If you feel confused by the paragraphs above and want to work through a tutorial on state legislative history, try Finding State Legislation:A Web Tutorial designed with a grant from American Library Association’s Government Documents Roundtable. This site provides examples of searches, links to the 50 state legislative sites via the Library of Congress Internet resource page “State and Local Governments” and does a great job of helping the researcher understand what documents and sites are useful in state legislative histories.Alternatively, if you already feel comfortable with the mechanics of legislative history research you may want to visit Multistate Associates’ State Legislative Presence on the Internet for a list of the 50 states with links to their legislature in a summary chart describing what materials and what formats are available for each state.The Comments column is helpful and, at least for our state, Michigan , accurate. However, the indication that DC doesn’t have status information is no longer correct. LLSDC’s Legislative Source Book includes a section on State Legislatures, State Laws and State Regulations:Website Links & Phone Numbers.

Of course, the catch in doing state legislative history is that we may be very familiar with how our state makes law, but then we are asked to dig into the workings of a sister state and find we know nothing about their process. A savvy researcher will not begin legislative history research in another state without first finding some guidance.Zimmerman’s Research Guide at LLRX.comState Legislative History” provides tips on legislative services and information sources.Many librarians have assisted professional and novice researchers by producing guides to “how to do legislative history” in their state or using their library collection.The State Law or Legislative Library or Archives may be the source of this material.For example, the Michigan Legislative Service Bureau’s Sources of Michigan Legislative History available from the Library of Michigan discusses the legislative documentation available and the sources of specific documents. The Maine State Law and Legislative Reference Library’s Maine Legislative History ; New York State Library’s The Legislative History of a New York State Law and Legislative Intent as well as the Legislative Reference Library’s Compiling Texas Legislative History and Utah State Archives & Record Service’s Legislative Intent and Legislative History are some of the “how-to” state legislative guides or pathfinders available on the web.

If you can’t locate a guide at a specific state library or archives, try one of the law school libraries in that state:ASU Ross-Blakley Law Library’s Arizona Legislative History:A Research Guide; A Guide to Finding California Legislative History; Marian Gould Gallagher Law Library’s Washington Legislative History are examples of available materials.These guides will help to familiarize researchers with the legislative process and documents available.

Several sources are often cited as helpful tools in locating state legislative materials: Guide to State Legislative and Administrative Materials, 2000 Ed. (Manz, William H.Buffalo , New York :William S. Hein & Co.); State Legislative Sourcebook:A Resource Guide to Legislative Information in the Fifty States (Hellenburst, Lynn.Topeka , Kansas :Government Research Service);and State Legislative Histories: A Select, Annotated Bibliography (Torres, Jose R. and Windsor, Steve. 85 Law Library Journal 545 (1993)). Don’t forget to check Zimmerman’s Research Guide at for a particular state or that state’s law/legislative library for more information on state legislative history/intent materials.

Obtaining state legislative history information, status and bill text has become much easier now that individual state websites are involved.Pre-Web researchers relied on Westlaw® and LexisNexis or commercial ventures such asState Net to obtain text and status.Commercial services and the state libraries may still be your only source to older bill/status information. It is not clear on most state Web pages how far back they will archive past legislative sessions.Documents that provide intent remain more elusive than status or bill text.However, as you research a particular state if you don’t see documents included on the Web page that would aid your search for intent–don’t be shy–use that “Contact Us” link to tell the Webmaster what you are looking for.Demand may help improve online access.

Links Mentioned in this Article

Finding State Legislation:A Web Tutorial

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Legislative Intent

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Legislative Intent and Legislative History

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Legislative Source Book

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Maine Legislative History

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Sources of Michigan Legislative History

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State Legislative History

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State Legislative Presence on the Internet

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Washington Legislative History

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Zimmerman’s Research Guide at

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