What is Legislative History?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

Legislative history is a legal term used to describe any materials created during the process of making a legislative bill. Legal scholars and politicians can sometimes use legislative history to ferret out the intent behind an older law. This practice is somewhat controversial, and while freely allowed in some regions, it is strongly frowned upon in others.

Woman posing
Woman posing

Legislative bills, measures, and acts, do not generally just spring into being. Most of the time, a proposed law or bill is created as a result of an investigative process that determines whether the need exists for the law, what the scope of the law should be, and how much implementation, execution, or enforcement will cost. Any documentation generated in determining these factors is considered legislative history.

Many legislatures form committees to investigate possible bills. These committees do extensive research and return reports to the legislature that detail their findings. Committee reports are considered an extremely important part of legislative history, since they are typically based on data rather than political affiliations or party stances. Some experts cite committee reports as the most influential type of legislative history.

The text of bills and any amendments are also considered a part of legislative history. For those seeking to interpret the bill at a later date, investigation often starts with a careful examination of how a bill is worded. Legal scholars can sometimes argue for years about the intention created by where a mark of punctuation, such as a comma, is placed. The text of the bill is seen as greatly important to determining intent.

Other forms of legislative history may include the remarks or testimony given by the bill's sponsors, and transcripts of hearings on the bill. These are considered to be less useful forms of history in determining intent, since politics and personal motive plays a large part in testimony during the hearing process. While often illuminating, these areas of legislative background are rarely used to build a case for intent.

Judges, politicians, and legal professionals may all use this type of history as a means of interpreting the law. In some regions, this practice is welcomed and even encouraged. In the United States, several important court cases have suggested that using legislative history is not acceptable and may even be dangerous. In statements against this practice, detractors suggest that debate and testimony is not a substitute for the actual text of the law, and it is too easy to find parts of legislative history that will support any argument.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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