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Introduction to Federal Legislative History
What is a legislative history? A legislative history is the documentary record of a legislature’s formulation, consideration and passage or rejection of a proposed law. A completed legislative history will consist of a collection of all of these documents.
Why create or research a legislative history? Most often, a legislative history is created or researched in order to aid in interpreting a statute that is vague or ambiguous or inconsistent in some way.
When should legislative history be resorted to? Courts will not usually consider legislative history if a statute is clear on its face; however, courts will on rare occasions examine the legislative history if a clear reading of the statute leads to a result that the legislature could not have intended (an "absurd" result).
Nevertheless, some judges (Justices Scalia and Thomas, for instance) think it’s always improper to resort to legislative history, although they are well in the minority.
Before Getting Started
Don’t reinvent the wheel. Refer to one of the sources mentioned in this guide to determine whether a legislative history has already been compiled for your law.
Things to keep in mind
Legislative documents are chronologically-numbered. For instance, "Public Law 109-10" indicates the 10th public law passed by the 109th Congress. "House Report 109-10" denotes the 10th report issued by the House of Representatives in the 109th Congress, but it has nothing to do with Public Law 109-10 (unless by coincidence).