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Legal Research: Federal: Legislative History & Intent

Help with common legal research questions.

Legislative History in Westlaw

WestlawNext offers several sources that may be helpful in determining the history of federal statutes. 

Determine the legislative source of the code section

Statues begin as bills, before being passed and codified into law.

Look at the end of the code section for the Public Law number (abbreviated PL or Pub. L.) and the Statutes at Large number (abbreviated Stat.)

  • Hint: In Westlaw, display the full text of the statute, then look for the section labeled "CREDIT(S)."
  • Hint: If you need to know the bill number, look in THOMAS: Public Laws (93rd Congress/1973-74 to the present) or Statutes at Large, Ref KF 50.U52 (72nd Congress/1930-31 to the present)

Locate text of bills as passed

Once you know the Statutes at Large or Public Laws number, you can locate the text of the bill as passed.

Consult Statutes at Large (digitized volumes from 1951-present) arranged by Stat. and/or PL number,

or THOMAS: Bills, Resolutions (101st Congress/1989-90 to the present). Searchable by keyword, bill number, date, and more.

House and Senate Reports

If legislation came out of a committee, the committee's reports may shed light on its intended goals.

Look in the 'Legislative History' section of United States Code Congressional and Administrative News (USCCAN), 5th Floor KF 48.A 5 (1980-2014). USCAAN is arranged by Congress, then by Public Law number.

Or, check THOMAS: Committee Reports (104th Congress/1995-96 to the present)

Floor Debates

Look in the Congressional Record:

  • 1873-1981 Microfilm, 4th floor
  • 1981-1994 (incomplete) Periodicals, 3rd floor
  • 1989-present at THOMAS: Congressional Record search
  • 2000-present Gov Docs Microfiche, 4th floor. SuDoc number X 1.1/A:

The Congressional Record is arranged by Congressional session, then by day. Indexes are published every 10 days (on 3rd floor, filed at end of section). The online version at THOMAS is searchable by keyword. See also GPO index to the Congressional Record, 1994-present.

For floor debates prior to 1873, consult the American Memory site, A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents & Debates, which includes:

  • Annals of Congress 1789-1824
  • Register of Debates 1824-37
  • Congressional Globe 1833-73