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Compiling a Federal Legislative History: A Beginner’s Guide

This post is coauthored by Barbara Bavis and Robert Brammer, senior legal reference specialists.

Compiling a federal legislative history may seem intimidating at first glance, but it does not have to be. In this Beginner’s Guide, we revisit previous posts to create a comprehensive research guide that you can use to compile your own federal legislative history.

Dorothy Thompson, columnist, sat down before Foreign Affairs Chairman Key Pittman and told him and members that neutrality laws should be repealed to allow the country to be free in forming policies in foreign affairs. Photograph by Harris and Ewing. (1939). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.26561

Dorothy Thompson, columnist, sat down before Foreign Affairs Chairman Key Pittman and told him and members that neutrality laws should be repealed to allow the country to be free in forming policies in foreign affairs. Photograph by Harris and Ewing. (1939). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.26561

When you begin your legislative history research, the first thing you should ask yourself is whether you need to compile your own federal legislative history. In several cases, someone might have already done the work for you, and compiled a legislative history report. In Locating a Compiled Federal Legislative History: A Beginner’s Guide, we list sources where you may be able to find these pre-compiled legislative history reports in print or online.

If you were not able to find a pre-compiled legislative history report, now you have to roll up your sleeves and compile your own. To begin, you have to use the information you already have about the legislation of interest to lead you to other important citation information.  If you are beginning with a U.S. Code citation, you will want to use our How to Trace Federal Legislation – A Research Guide post to find the public law numbers, U.S. Statutes at Large citations, and bill information for both the legislation that gave rise to that section of the U.S. Code and any legislation that amended it.

Once you have this citation information, you will want to use it to find the legislative history documents that will make up your own legislative history report. We strongly suggest using our recent Beginner’s Guides to complete your research, including:

Keep in mind, when using legislative history documents in court, that judges are not of one mind as to the weight they give a legislative history document. Some judges believe these documents are invaluable in cases where the legislation is not necessarily clear from its text, while others believe these documents are at best an imperfect representation of the legislative intent.[1]

We hope this guide has been helpful. If you have any questions, please contact us through Ask A Librarian.

 

[1] Several legal scholars have examined the treatment of legislative history by judges. For a deeper discussion of these opposing views, see, e.g., Edward Heath, How Federal Judges Use Legislative History; Essay, 25 J. of Legis. 95 (1999), available at http://scholarship.law.nd.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1196&context=jleg.

 

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