Do It Right – Researching Legislative History: What to Look For and Where to Find It

by: Peggy Lewis and Matt Dawkins

Imagine it’s six months from now, the leaves are just starting to turn, there’s a hint of fall in the air, and you get a call from a constituent who wants to know, “What was the intent of the legislature in passing that bill?” That’s actually a much more difficult question to answer than it might seem at first blush.

The General Assembly is a group of individuals, each of whom may have a different opinion as to the “intent” of any particular provision of the law, and no single legislator can definitively say what the collective intent of the entire General Assembly was in enacting a provision of law. Legislative history research is used for discovering sources of information about the legislative intent of a provision of law. Legislative histories cannot be found in a single document or resource. They are not automatically prepared or compiled. Rather, they must be constructed by a researcher from many different sources and materials.

When conducting legislative history research, it is important to use the various documents and records available.  The legislative process that produces these documents and records is complex. Constructing the legislative history on a provision of law or piece of legislation may require several hours of research and preparation. While the Office of Legislative Legal Services is unable to provide this service for the public, the information contained in the document entitled Researching Legislative History may be a helpful starting point. The goal of this article is to help a researcher better understand what to look for and where to find it.

A logical beginning point for reconstructing the legislative history of a  provision of law is to examine the source note for that provision. A source note identifies the key information about the legislative bill(s) that affected the statutory provision. A source note is an invaluable tool to a researcher. Located immediately after the text of the statute, the source note serves as a roadmap of the statute’s development from its enactment to its current state. (For more information about source notes, see Understanding Colorado Statutory Source Notes.)

Although a source note allows a researcher to locate various changes made to a statute over time or to locate the original legislative act that enacted the law, it doesn’t reveal the intent behind the statute. An examination of the statute’s complete legislative history is key when attempting to identify the intent behind the statute. The legislative history of a statute is a compilation of information found in various documents and records that were generated in the course of creating the legislation that enacted or modified the statute. Examples include the various versions of a bill, committee reports, fiscal notes, witness testimony provided to a committee, audio recordings of legislative discussion during floor debates, and histories of actions taken on the legislation. Researchers may also find it helpful to compare the language contained in the enacted bill with that found in earlier versions of the bill to see how the language was changed or developed as the bill moved through the legislative process. Amendments that were offered but not adopted may also provide insight as to why the bill’s language developed in the way it did (i.e., rejection of a specific idea contained in the amendment that was not adopted). These documents and records are the resources that can help identify the intent behind a statute.

Recommended Steps for Researching Legislative History
1.    Identify the statutory section you wish to research.
2.    Determine the bill number that enacted the statutory language and the session at which it was enacted.
3.    Trace the procedural history of the bill during its passage.
4.    Listen to audio recordings of legislative discussion.
5.    Compare all versions of the bill.
6.    Review the bill drafting and research records.
7.    Consult other helpful documents and resources.