Legislative History: Federal and Washington

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Legislative History: Federal and Washington. Bridge the Legal Research Gap 2006 Ann Hemmens University of Washington Law Library. What is Legislative History?. The progress of a bill through the legislative process The documents created during that process
Legislative History: Federal and Washington

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Legislative history federal and washington l.jpgSlide 1

Legislative History:Federal and Washington

Bridge the Legal Research Gap 2006

Ann Hemmens

University of Washington Law Library

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What is Legislative History?

  • The progress of a bill through the legislative process

  • The documents created during that process

    • versions of bills and amendments, committee reports, debates, and hearings

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Why does it matter?

  • Courts look to legislative history (LH) to interpret unclear statutory language & determine intent of Congress

  • Stephen Breyer, On the Uses of Legislative History in Interpreting Statutes, 65 S. Cal. L. Rev. 845 (1992).

    • Reasonable uses of LH

      • avoid an absurd result

      • correct a drafting error

      • recognize specialized meanings of words (e.g., standing)

      • identify reasonable purpose of phrase

      • choose among reasonable interpretations on politically controversial issue

    • Argue against use of LH

      • Plain meaning rule (look to the language of the statute)

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Washington Court of Appeals uses Legislative History

  • “When a statute is ambiguous, we apply principles of statutory construction, legislative history, and relevant case law, giving effect to the Legislature's intent.”

    • State v. Manro, 125 Wash.App. 165, 173 (2005)

  • West Digest Topic [Statutes] & Key Number [217.2]:

    • 361k217.2 k. Legislative Historyof Act.

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U.S. Supreme Court looks to Legislative History

  • “As for the propriety of using legislative history at all, common sense suggests that inquiry benefits from reviewing additional information rather than ignoring it. . . Our precedents demonstrate that the Court's practice of utilizing legislative history reaches well into its past. See, e.g., Wallace v. Parker, 6 Pet. 680, 687-690, 8 L.Ed. 543 (1832). We suspect that the practice will likewise reach well into the future.”

    • Wisconsin Public Intervenor v. Mortier, 501 U.S. 597, 610 (1991)

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Questions Answered in Legislative History

  • Who sponsored this legislation and why? What did he or she say about it during debates?

  • How did the language of the law change in various versions of the bill?

  • What did the Committee recommend in their Report?

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Most important legislative history materials, in order:

  • Committee Reports (contain analysis & recommendations)

  • Bills (including different versions & amendments)

  • Sponsor remarks made on House or Senate floor (debates)

  • Committee hearings (public hearings held by committees considering bills)

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Federal Legislative History

  • Research Guide

  • Remember:

    • CIS Index / LexisNexis Congressional

    • THOMAS

    • USCCAN (United States Code Congressional and Administrative News)

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Sources of Compiled Legislative Histories: A Bibliography of Government Documents, Periodical Articles, and Books, 1st Congress-105th Congress (by Nancy P. Johnson)

Hein Online database contains a Legislative History Library with 15 compiled legislative histories.

USA Patriot Act

Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990

Search Library Catalogs

USA PATRIOT Act: A Legislative History

Federal Estate, Gift, And Generation-Skipping Taxes: A Legislative History

Step 1:Look for Compiled Legislative History

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Step 2: Identify LH Documents

  • CIS Index & Legislative Histories

    • Print

    • Online

      • LexisNexis Congressional (available at UW)

      • Lexis(Legal>Federal Legal - U.S.>Legislative Histories & Materials>US - CIS Legislative Histories)

  • THOMAS website

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CIS Index (LexisNexis Congressional):

Search for Legislative Histories

by keyword or

Public Law or Bill Number.

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Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, Pub.L. No. 104-132

LexisNexis Congressional:

Link to Bills,

Debates, Reports,

Hearings etc.

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  • Free website

  • Reliable (Library of Congress)

  • Contains: public laws, committee reports, bills, debates, hearings

  • Example:

    • Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 (108th Congress)

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Search by

keyword across

multiple Congresses

(1989 – current)

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Search for

Bills by



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Bill Summary and Status

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Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 on THOMAS


Links to

Reports, Debates,

Votes, Public

Laws etc.

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Step 3: Locate the Documents

Committee Reports & Public Laws:

  • United States Code Congressional and Administrative News (USCCAN), 1941-date.

    • Print OR Westlaw (USCCAN)

  • Westlaw – Graphical Statutes

  • CIS Legislative Histories online (LexisNexis Congressional or Lexis)

  • THOMAS (

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Sample Documents

Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003

  • Pub.L. No. 108-105 (Public Law)

  • H. REP. NO. 108-288 (House Report)

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Use Adobe’s



Public Law:

cite to 18 U.S.C. 1531

found in margin

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Graphical Statutes

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Link to Public

Law, Bills, Reports,

Debates, Hearings

from the

statute (U.S.C.)

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Public Laws




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Public Law


link to




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Step 3: Locate the Documents: Committee Hearings

  • GPO Access

    • covers 1997-date, selective.


    • only online source of official published hearings (other sources are testimony transcripts only).

    • Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003.

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free source

of Congressional

publications (e.g., hearings)

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Step 4:Analyzing the Documents

  • Norman J. Singer, Statutes and Statutory Construction (6th ed.).

    • [also known as Sutherland on Statutory Construction]

  • Ronald Benton Brown et al.,Statutory Interpretation: The Search for Legislative Intent(2002).

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Washington State Legislative History Research

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Basics of WA Legislative History Research

  • In 1897, WA Supreme Court looked at sequential drafts of a bill to determine legislative intent.

    • Howlett v. Cheetham, 17 Wash. 626 (1897).

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Basics of WA Legislative History Research

  • Materials(mid 1970s-current)

    • Available

      • in print at law libraries

      • WA Legislature’s website, TVW website, Westlaw & LexisNexis.

    • Types of Materials?

      • Bill Files, Committee Reports, versions of bills, House & Senate Journals (audiotapes of debates), Committee Meetings (audiotapes)

  • Contact People

    • WA State Archives -- request copies of “Bill File”

    • House & Senate Journal Clerks – audiotape of Debates

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Washington Legislative History

  • Research Guide

  • Remember

    • Legislature’s website

    • State Archives

    • TVW website

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Step 1: Start with RCW section

  • RCW § 9.91.170Interfering with dog guide or service animal.

    • Statutory history in parenthetical

      • [2003 c 53 § 52; 2001 c 112 § 2.]

  • WA Legislature’s RCW page


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  • WA Legislature’s website:

  • Bill Information (1997-current)

  • Laws and Agency Rules (RCW)

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Step 1: RCW 9.91.170

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Step 2: Look at Session Law to Get Bill Number

  • WA Legislature’s Bill Information page,

    • Legislative documents:

      • bills & amendments, session laws, committee reports (1997 – current)

    • How to find Bill Number?

      • Chapter to Bill Table, RCW to Bill Table, Topical Index

  • Example: Use “Session Law to Bill Table”

    • (2001, c.112 § 2) → Senate Bill 5942: Increasing penalties for crimes against dog guides and service animals

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What is the

bill number?

Use “Bill to Law

Cross Reference”


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“Bill Information” page:

Search for

legislative documents

by Bill # or keyword


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Step 2: Bill Information Page

Links to

bills, amendments,

reports etc.

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Step 3:Documents Available Online(1997-current)

  • House and Senate Committee Reports

  • Final Legislative Report(Final Bill Report)

    • (in print: 1979-current)

  • Bills & Amendments

  • Legislative Digest and History of Bills(chronology & reporting committee)

    • (in print: 1970-current)

  • Roll Call Votes

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Step 4:WA House & Senate Journals

  • In print at law libraries (1889-current)

    • online at Legislature’s website (2005-current).

  • Includes:

    • dates of floor action

    • amendments

    • “point of inquiry” or “debate ensued” (debate about a bill)*

      • *Debates are not printed in Journal; they are available on audiotape from House or Senate Journal clerks (not transcribed).

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WA Senate Journal Example

Journal of the Senate (March 12, 2001)


[concerning Engrossed Substitute Senate Bill No. 5372]

Senator Brown: “Senator Prentice, is it the intent of this legislation to provide only for agreements with twelve tribes that own and operate smoke shops and not provide a precedent for other tribes which have different circumstances such as independent smoke shops that are licensed by the tribal government, such as Puyallup?”

Senator Prentice: “Yes, this bill represents terms and conditions agreed to by only the tribes listed in the bill. The state recognizes that agreements with other tribes may involve alternative rates and conditions.”

Debate ensued.

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Step 6:Contact WA State Archives

  • Committee Bill Files

    • Mid-1970’s forward

  • Committee Meeting audiotapes

    • Mid-1970s forward (not transcribed).

  • Research Section of the WA State Archives in Olympia

    • (360-586-1492) Research@secstate.wa.gov

    • They copy and send bill files for reasonable fee.

    • Open to the public.

  • Governor's files on specific bills

    • (1951-1955 & 1965-1984)

  • Legislative Council records (1947-1973) and personal papers of some legislators (files are incomplete).

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Step 7:TVW WA’s Public Affairs Network


  • WA House and Senate Committee Hearings and Floor Debates

    • audio and video

    • 1996/97 to current

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  • Federal LH Research Guide

    • USCCAN (WL Graphical Statutes)

    • THOMAS website

    • CIS (LN Congressional)

  • Washington LH Research Guide

    • Legislature’s website

    • State Archives & TV W

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