Features – Legislative History Research in North Carolina

Amanda McCabe is the Founder and Chief Researcher of North Carolina Legislative Research Service, which specializes in legislative history research. She is a former Legislative Librarian for the Washington, D.C. office of Reed Smith Shaw & McClay and an Account Representative for LexisNexis. Amanda may be contacted at [email protected] or 919-570-0903.

For the Legislative Librarian, a request for a state legislative history research is often greeted with angst. Many questions immediately arise. Does legislative history exist in the state? If so, what documents are there? And, importantly, how quickly can they be obtained? Answers vary from state-to-state and an impatient, and commonly desperate, attorney pacing near the library’s reference desk, can be difficult to manage. In this article, we will focus on answering those questions for one state, the Tar Heel State of North Carolina.

Legislative History in North Carolina Courts

A recent case law study by North Carolina Supreme Court librarian Tom Davis reveals that “the North Carolina appellate courts, when confronted with an ambiguous statute, have often construed it by reference to its legislative history. The courts have repeatedly relied on such documents as the pre-introduction reports, bill versions, and standing committee materials of statutes under review.” Though not nearly as extensive or readily available as their federal counterparts, legislative documents do exist and can be utilized in establishing legislative intent. A thorough discussion of existing North Carolina case law and the courts treatment of legislative history can be found in Davis’ article “Legislative History in North Carolina: Three Dozen Cases of the Twentieth Century” (http://www.aoc.state.nc.us/www/copyright/library/leghrefs.htm).

Overview of the North Carolina General Assembly

First meeting in 1776, the North Carolina General Assembly is responsible for making new laws and amending or repealing existing law affecting the people of the State. Though the state Constitution calls for a biennial meeting of the General Assembly, for practical purposes, the body divides the session into two annual sessions. The General Assembly is comprised of the 50 member Senate and 120 member House of Representatives and commences in January following elections. In the current session, 555 of the over 2500 bills introduced have been enacted.

Identifying Legislative History Documents

The pre-enactment documents that comprise North Carolina legislative history are similar to those for federal legislation. The following is a checklist of material related to passage of legislation and a brief description for each:

  • North Carolina General Statutes – (Equivalent to the United States Code) Online at http://www.ncleg.net/Statutes/GeneralStatutes. NCGS is the beginning point of most legislative history projects. Similar to federal research, an examination of the notes following the statutory section of interest directs the researcher to the Session/Chapter Laws creating and/or amending the section.
  • Session Laws – (Equivalent to the Statutes-at-Large). Online from 1969-present at http://www.ncleg.net/SessionLaws. This collection of Chapter Laws of a Session of the General Assembly leads the researcher to the ratified bill number.
  • Bill Versions – (Equivalent to federal House and Senate Bills) . Online from 1997 at http://www.ncleg.net/html2001/BillInfo/BillInfo.html. Frequently, proposed legislation is amended as it moves through the House and Senate chambers. The variations in proposed statutory language can be useful in determining legislative intent.
  • House and Senate Journals – (Equivalent to the Congressional Record). Not available online. The House and Senate Journals differ from the Congressional Record in that it is not a transcript of debate and only records proceedings of the General Assembly chambers.
  • Study Reports – (Equivalent to House and Senate Committee Reports). Online list of NC Legislative Library holdings and selected full-text reports at http://www.ncleg.net/LegLibrary/studies/studies.htm. Topical reports prepared by Standing or Study Committees for the General Assembly usually include a thorough analysis of existing law, recommendations for changes in the law, and proposed legislative language. The pre-introduction reports are “especially pertinent…in considering the intent of the Legislature” (see Hunt v. Reinsurance Facility, 302 N.C. 274,275 (1981).
  • Standing and Study Committee Minutes – (Equivalent to House and Senate Committee Hearings). Not available online The Minutes of Standing or Study Committee meetings are not transcripts but rather a summary of committee actions sometimes accompanied by an explanatory memorandum by committee legal staff.
  • The Minutes of Standing or Study Committee meetings are not transcripts but rather a summary of committee actions sometimes accompanied by an explanatory memorandum by committee legal staff.
  • Gubernatorial Messages – (Equivalent to Presidential Statements). Current administration online at http://www.governor.state.nc.us/News/Proclamations
  • Remarks prior to introduction, at signing, or veto messages (the Governor was given veto power in 1996) may also prove relevant to determining legislative intent.


Researching the legislative history of a North Carolina statute can be a daunting assignment for legal professionals. Though there are selected recent documents available online at the General Assembly web site and commercial online services, nearly all legislative history research projects require having someone in Raleigh with knowledge and experience to physically sift through pages of legislative documents to locate and collect the material related to passage of a particular law.

Budgetary and staffing constraints typically preclude the General Assembly Legislative Library staff from assisting the public and, while a few organizations have made arrangements with Raleigh law firms to provide paralegal support to conduct legislative history research, they represent a very small portion of those needing research assistance. Commercial services specializing in North Carolina legislative history research have recently emerged and are a serious consideration for those seeking this type information. Regardless of how they are obtained, a thorough examination of legislative documents can provide the legal professional the confidence and security that comes from knowing they have completed all facets of their legal research.

Posted in: Features