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January 22, 2001
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Tools for Researching Wisconsin Legislation and Conducting Legislative History (1)

The Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau has outlined the steps for tracing legislative history:

  • identify the session law that created the language of the statute you are researching;
  • examine the session laws and any accompanying statements of legislative intent and determine the bill that created the law;
  • review the bill along with any accompanying analysis;
  • examine the drafting record;
  • trace the procedural history of the bill; and
  • locate any other information available. (2)
What follows is a discussion of those sources that will allow a researcher to proceed as outlined above. Sources referred to here can be located through one of the library's location guides at http://library.law.wisc.edu/guides/ or via the MadCat Library Catalog at http://madcat.library.wisc.edu.

Session Laws and Statutes

Session laws are the acts of the Wisconsin Legislature as they are passed in their initial form. They are published in chronological order in the Laws of Wisconsin with each biennial session of the legislature. One way to identify a session law is by going to West's Wisconsin Statutes Annotated and examining the "Historical and Statutory Notes" at the end of the statutory section in question. The notes identify the founding session law and list every change affecting the statutory section.

Bills

The number of a bill is listed directly above the title of each act in the Laws of Wisconsin and in the "Historical and Statutory" notes section of West's Wisconsin Statutes Annotated. You can also locate a bill and trace its progress through the indexes in the Bulletin of the Proceedings of the Wisconsin Legislature. The texts of bills are available in Wisconsin Acts and Bills. Bills dating back to 1995 are also available via the Wisconsin State Legislature's home page at http://www.legis.state.wi.us/.

Drafting Record

Drafting records are a by-product of legislation. While not designed to reveal legislative intent, the documents contained in drafting records may shed light on the context in which the bill was passed. (3)

Other Sources

While Wisconsin generally lacks published hearings, committee reports and other official documents, there are a number of alternative methods for documenting legislative intent. For example, the researcher can :

  • review the wide collection of material related to legislation at the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau, including reports published by state agencies and a newspaper clipping collection filed by topic.
  • visit the Archives of State Historical Society to browse through letters or memoranda written by legislators.
  • examine reports of the Joint Legislative Council's study committees for bills the council has introduced. Some reports are accessible via the Council's web site at http://www.legis.state.wi.us/lc/publications.htm. In addition, many of the Council's publications are listed in MadCat and Wisconsin Public Documents.
  • review Judicial Council notes, reports and meeting minutes on bills it has introduced.

1. For more information on legislative history sources, see Peter A. Cannon, Guide to Researching Wisconsin Legislation (1998); http://www.legis.state.wi.us/lrb/pubs/98wb8.pdf.
2. Id. at 6.
3. For more information, see id. at 1.

Written by: Sunil Rao
Reference Librarian

strao@facstaff.wisc.edu

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