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North Carolina Legislative History Research: Steps for Searching

Researching the legislative history of a state law can be a difficult task. This guide will help you understand the legislative process and how to find the history of a law in North Carolina.

Session Laws: Step 1

General statutes are the general laws currently in force, arranged by subject, as passed and modified by the General Assembly (regardless of when they originally became law). 
Session laws are the laws as passed in each session of the General Assembly. Session laws have information that you won't find in the General Statutes.

Example of a session law:

This is chapter 74 from 2005:  

 

 

As you can see, there are several indicators and useful references that can aid in the compiling of legislative history. 

  • Session law title.  By law, this has to define what the session law is about—it’s basically stating in a single sentence the legislative intent. 
  • Bill Number.  This is the number assigned as the bill passes through the Clerk's office.  The first bill filed in the Senate  during a legislative session is SB (Senate Bill) 1; the second is SB 2, and so on. Similarly, a bill in the House will be HB [number].
  • Preamble.  Most laws don’t have preambles, but some of them do, and basically they explain why the lawmakers thought they should pass the law.  The preamble is stripped out of the law when it is added the General Statutes, volume, so you’re only going to see it in the session law. 
  • Ratification date.  

The first law that passed in the biennial session of the General Assembly is called Chapter 1, the second was chapter 2, and so on.  It doesn’t  matter what the subject is, and doesn’t matter when it was introduced or by whom.  The first law that passes becomes chapter 1. Bear in mind that the Chapter number assigned to a session law has nothing to do with the Chapter numbers in the General Statutes.    

One other thing to notice, a session law can be referred to in a number of ways—1941-37, 1941 chapter 37 (1941 ch. 37), or 1941 session law 37 (1941 S.L.37).  Those are all the same—they all mean that it’s the 37th law from the 1941 session.

Note: On the NC Government Publications Collection website, there is a research guide about Session Laws that might be helpful. It can be found at: http://ncgovdocs.org/guides/sessionlaws.htm

Journals and Online Bill Histories: Step 2

As of 2017, the  NC General Assembly's website (http://ncleg.net) has bill histories attached to session laws beginning with the 1985 session. Bill histories detail when a bill was introduced and what committees it was assigned to, as well as any votes for passage.  Before 1985, users must consult the legislative journals.  The House and Senate Journals are online starting in 1822, and are available at http://ncgovdocs.org.  Note that the Journals for the House and Senate were combined in a single volume until 1868, when each chamber began publishing separately.

The Journals are basically just records of the legislative day—they don’t have debates in them.  As with the bill histories outlined above, they contain topics like when a bill was introduced, who sponsored it, which committee it went to, and sometimes vote counts. (If you’re following a paper trail, you have to look at the chamber in which it was introduced first, follow it all the way through, and then look in the journal for the other chamber; most of the time, the bill number will stay the same when it crosses to the other chamber.  If it was Senate Bill 116, it’ll still be Senate Bill 116 when you look for it in the House Journal.)


Example: 

 

This is the history for House Bill 955, which became session law 1995-731.  It works basically the same way as the paper journal. As you can see, you can glean several important pieces of information from this page.  You can get the sponsor, the committees it was assigned to, and the introduction date.  You can also look at the various editions of the bill as it went through the legislative process.  Sometimes earlier versions of the bill have explanations or preambles that are left out of the final edition. 

As you can also see, this bill had a fairly complicated history—amendments failed, a substitute was adopted, it had to go to a conference committee.  The point here is that the chances are pretty good that it generated an extra paper trail as it made its way through the process, or it might have garnered some press attention.

Floor Debates: Step 3

The next step is the floor debates. If it’s in the latter half of the 20th century, you can hope for a recording of a floor debate, or some committee minutes to help you along.

  • House: audio available from NCGA House of Representatives 2009-current (http://ncleg.net/House/House.html)
  • Senate: audio available from NC State Archives 1965-67 and 1975-2012 (http://digital.ncdcr.gov/cdm/home/collections/senate-audio). Current session only available at http://ncleg.net/Senate/Senate.html

Bear in mind that a lot of floor debate happens after most of the substantial work has been done on the bill in committee.  Also, the debates aren't indexed in any way.

Committee Minutes: Step 4

Committee minutes are only available since 1967, and many of them are just summary minutes—that is, when the committee met and who attended.  The minutes are available at the Legislative Library only.  Paper copies are available for the the most recent 10 years. Prior years will be on microfilm only.

Some committees are much more thorough in what they preserve.  The general rule of thumb is that the closer the committee is to money, the more substantial the notes are likely to be. The finance and appropriations committees, particularly, are good about keeping legislative analyst’s notes and financial statements attached.  

Study Commission Reports: Step 5

Study reports are usually reports requested by the legislature on a particular topic.  They’re not commissioned on every topic, and they’re not about every law.  In any given session, 1500 - 2000 bills may be introduced, and on average only about 80 study reports are commissioned or published.  Still, for the topics they do address,  they can be tremendously useful because they give  background information on the issue, survey other states responses to similar questions, and often provide guidance for the legislators regarding future legislation. 

Study reports are held in the Legislative Library: http://www.ncleg.net/library/Collections/studies/search.html. See also other legislative publications, including links to individual study reports that are available online: http://www.ncleg.net/library/Collections/legpub.html

Most study reports are also sent through the State Depository system to libraries such as the  NC Government & Heritage Library or UNC-Chapel Hill.

Related to legislative study commission reports are third party studies.  These are useful when you’re looking for subjects before 1950. Occasionally the governor or the General Assembly would ask an outside commission or think tank to conduct a study and send a report. These are relatively rare, but would be available at the Government & Heritage Library or the NC collection at UNC-Chapel Hill

Other Possibilities: Step 6

  • Governors papers: The governor may suggest legislation, or may mention major legislative priorities, and often gives the rationale behind the suggestion.  Depending on how thorough you want the search to be, it’s sometimes worth looking through the governor’s papers in the State Archives to see if he corresponded with lawmakers or constituents about the topic.  The annual governors statement to the legislature can give some good clues to intention as well, especially if he was a former legislator—some of those statements are available online through the Public Documents series at ncgovdocs.org.
  • Personal papers: When governors and/or  legislators retire, some of them donate their personal papers to Archives and libraries around the state.  Sometimes you can find detailed examinations of their own actions, including letters explaining the legislation they were involved with.
  • State Agency Reports: Sometimes biennial reports from particular agencies will include the department’s rationale for supporting legislation in a particular area, or suggest stronger enforcement measures. In any case, even though it might not be direct evidence, it can still give some valuable insight into why legislation happened when it did.
  • Newspapers: Newspaper coverage can often be the only way to gain any insight into why bills were introduced.  Particular sponsors may give interviews to local papers, or coverage may increase around ratification date.  Check both the large dailies such as the Raleigh News & Observer or Charlotte Observeras well as local papers where the sponsor was from.