University of Wisconsin–Madison

Tips for Researching the Legislative History of a Law

Determining the intent of a law can be challenging because of the complexity in identifying, collecting and analyzing all the relevant documents which comprise its legislative history.  Keep in mind that state legislatures do not typically publish the same detailed documentation that the Federal government provides (like hearings and debates). Having a solid understanding of the legislative process is essential.  Here are some important, go-to resources when researching the legislative history of a law.

Wisconsin Law

Keane, Michael J.  Researching Legislative History in Wisconsin: Legislative Reference Bureau, Madison, WI (2006).

This useful guide outlines the research process step by step and explains all the primary resources needed to trace legislative history in Wisconsin.  The UW Law Library has a complete collection of the Wisconsin Statutes, Session Laws, and the drafting records which are discussed in this article.

Ebbott, William J.  Researching the Legislative History of Wisconsin Laws: An Annotated Bibliography.

Citing to numerous Wisconsin legislative history references, this comprehensive bibliography includes information on how a bill becomes a law as well as statutory construction / interpretation.

Be sure to consult the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau website and their knowledgeable staff for assistance.  The expertise of the LRB is especially invaluable whenever legislation is enacted as part of a budget bill.

Federal Law

For a detailed road map of the research process at the federal level, start by reading the legislative history chapters in these two treatises:

Barkan, Steven M.   Fundamentals of Legal Research.  (see Chapter 10)

Berring, Robert C. Finding the Law. (see Chapter 6)

Several commercial vendors publish compilations of legislative histories and one of the most respected is Nancy Johnson's Sources of Compiled Legislative Histories.  This resource is also available via Hein Online.

An easy way to locate the key committee reports which accompany a public law is the United States Code, Congressional and Administrative News.  And finally, try Lexis Nexis Congressional.  This database provides ready access to an incredible collection of bills, bill tracking reports, indexing to hearings, as well as the full text of House and Senate reports, the Congressional Record and public laws.  It can be accessed from the electronic resources listing on the UW Law Library home page.

Feel free to contact the reference staff for guidance on any of these resources.

Submitted by Cheryl O'Connor on March 24, 2011

This article appears in the categories: Law Library

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