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North Carolina Legislative History: Getting started

What you can find out and what you can't

In general, you will easily  be able to learn about the mechanics of a bill or law, but not about the intent of a bill or law.

Thus, here are the types of questions you can easily answer if you know where to look:

  • WHO introduced a bill
  • WHAT did the bill say
  • HOW MANY versions of the bill were there

And here are the types of questions you may have trouble answering:

  • WHY was the legislation introduced
  • WHY was a law altered
  • WHAT was the roll call vote on the bill

NOTE: It's still possible to learn legislative intent on some laws, and there are sources that can be very valuable in searches of this kind, so they should be consulted if possible.

Understanding Legislative History vs. Statutory History

Legislative vs. Statutory history

True legislative history is looking for legislative intent, by looking at debates, hearings, committee minutes, or reports, trying to clarify what the law says by looking at what the lawmakers said as they created the law. It’s trying to find a better answer to the question “What does the law mean?”  or “How did it get that way?”

Sometimes a person will say “legislative history” but what they mean is “statutory history.” (Statutory history is a term our library uses to differentiate between the two types of research.)  Statutory history is looking at how a law evolved.  More specifically, in most cases, it usually means that they’re looking for an old statute.  They know what the law says now, but want to know what it said 10 or 20 or 50 years ago. 

Legislative history = MEANING
Statutory history = TIME

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Example: Let’s say there’s a statute that says, “Any person who injures another person with a motor vehicle is punished as a Class B felon.”  THIS IS NOT A REAL STATUTE

A  Legislative History question for this might be:  “I hit someone but I was riding a Segway.  Is that a motor vehicle?" 

One of the ways you could try to find out is to look at the debates, the hearings, whatever documentation you can find about the discussions the lawmakers had as they were creating the law, to see if they make clear what vehicles they were talking about.  Did they make it clear that they were talking about any motorized transportation?  Or are they just talking about road vehicles like cars, trucks and motorcycles?

That’s legislative history--looking at the context of the law to see if you can find some further definition of the law.

Statutory History would be more along the lines of: “I hit someone with a car, but it was more than 10 years ago.  What did the law say in 2001?” 

You have to be prosecuted under the law as it was at the time of the offense, so the patron needs a statutory history.  And maybe in this case you find that the law passed originally in 1990, and was then revised in 2005.   But from 1990 to 2005, maybe you’ll find that the statute read “Any person who injures another person with motor vehicle, shall be punished as a Class F felon.”  The only difference is in the type of Felony class--but that makes a difference in the punishment if convicted--so what the law said at the time makes a difference.

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Generally, statutory history sources are available, though locations are limited.

Generally, legislative history sources are difficult, though not impossible, to find.

 Some sources like legislative journals and Session laws are available starting in the 1700s or even earlier.  But as you can see, there are some important exceptions. A lot of people want to see the debates from the General Assembly.  Unfortunately, there are no official transcripts of debates.  The Senate started recording their sessions in the 1970s; the House didn’t start till 2009--so there’s nothing official for the 19th century, and almost nothing for the 20th.  Another source is committee minutes--the General Assembly does a lot of their work in committee--they hold hearings, craft a lot of the legislation--and so minutes could be very useful.  But there are some problems with them--1) they’re only available in the Legislative Library, 2) they only started keeping them in 1967, and 3) many times they’re summary minutes.  It’s always worth looking at them, because there are always exceptions, but a lot of times the only information you’ll get is who was there and when they met.

So there are a lot of potential roadblocks, and we need to be aware of them, but these sources can hold very valuable information if they are available.

Subject Guide

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Steve Case
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