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Research Guides in Focus – Compiling a Federal Legislative History: A Beginner’s Guide, by Barbara Bavis, In Custodia Legis Blog


You may remember the Schoolhouse Rock song, “I’m Just a Bill.” Both state and federal laws – statutes – start out as just a bill. Once the bill is passed by a state or federal legislature and signed by a governor or the President, it becomes law. If you want to be proficient in legal research, it is important to understand this process. This post is an excellent introduction to federal legislative intent and how to use it to research and interpret federal statutes, also called codes.

If you are researching a new statute, you need to know where to look. Once a statute becomes law, it is not immediately categorized into the federal code.  Instead, it is published chronologically in the Statutes at Large. (See https://www.loc.gov/law/help/statutes-at-large/.)  Statutes are “codified,” meaning categorized and published in the United States Code, anywhere from 6 weeks to a year after it became law.  The United States Code, just like state statutes, are organized alphabetically into titles and numbered consecutively, such as Title 26, Internal Revenue Code. (See http://uscode.house.gov/browse.xhtml.)

There will be situations in which you will need to research why a statute or federal code was written and passed into law. When the legal argument hinges on a particular law, we normally look to case law to see how our jurisdiction’s court, or those that would be persuasive to our court, interpreted this statute. But, if your statute is recent and no case law has yet addressed it, you must research the legislative intent to support your argument. In other words, why was the bill written, what was its purpose, and what were the reasons given when the bill was debated to pass it?

Courts apply the law to the facts of each case to decide that case’s outcome, while relying on precedent and doctrine of stare decisis. But, when no case law interpreting a law exists in your jurisdiction – a case of “first impression” – you must look elsewhere for legal authority to support your argument.  Persuasive authority, cases decided by courts from other jurisdictions, can be just that – persuasive – but they are not cases your court must follow. The legislative intent is a stronger argument on which your court can rely to make its decision.

Because the Library of Congress and other online sources have digitalized the Statutes at Large and other online resources, it is much easier to research federal legislative intent. I encourage you to look to the Library of Congress and the law librarians at In Custodia Legis Blog to help you on that journey. -CCE