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Federal Legislative History Guide

How to locate, compile, and understand the legislative history of federal acts.

Where to begin?

Typically, legislative history questions arise when there is some ambiguity with regards to a particular section of the U.S. Code and the courts have not addressed it. 
In order to answer those questions, we must turn to the documents that created that particular piece of legislation.

Clues in the Code

An annotated USC will offer a historical note at the end of each section (derivation note) that provides the history of that particular section. 

Most importantly, you will find a reference to the Public Law Number and Statutes at Large citation,  which you will use as your access points.

When a bill is signed into law by the President it is sent to the Office of the Federal Register to be assigned a law number, paginated for the United States Statutes at Large, and prepared for publication as a slip law.
Note: A slip law is an official publication of the law and is "competent evidence," admissible in all state and Federal courts and tribunals of the United States (1 U.S.C. 113)
At the end of each session of Congress, the slip laws are compiled into bound volumes called the Statutes at Large, and they are known as "session laws".

Statutes at Large

A few words about the Statutes at Large:

  1. Original  language of the law as passed.
  2. Present a chronological arrangement of the laws in the exact order that they have been enacted. 
  3. Unless the U.S. Code has been reenacted by Congress as positive law,  the Statutes at Large governs.

Where to find:

  1. UC Law Library Coverage:  1789 – present
  2. HeinOnline  Coverage: 1789 – present
  3. ProQuest Congressional  Coverage:  1789 - present
  4. (Library of Congress)  Coverage:  1995 - present
  5. WestlawNext  Coverage: 1789 - 1972

After you find the “Law”...look for a Compilation

  • You can begin to locate all of the particular documents created while the legislation weaved it’s way through Congress. 
  • Sounds like fun!  YES!
  • Don’t stress out!

If no compilation exists...

  • Don't stress out!
  • Then you will need to familiarize yourself with the Legislative process and begin collecting the various documents that comprise a legislative history (i.e., bills, hearings, reports). 
  • This can be a tedious/complicated process.  We are here to help.  Don’t hesitate to contact the Reference Desk if you assistance.

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