How to Eat the Elephant: Compiling a Montana Legislative History

elephant-headYou’ve been given a Montana statute and asked to compile a legislative history for it.  And you’ve heard tell that compiling a Montana legislative history is a mammoth and difficult task.  But it’s not as hard to do as you might think.  Really.  It’s like what they say about how to eat an elephant – you do it one bite at a time.  The tips below are meant to give you some background and an idea of the framework of the process and to provide you with resources that will help reduce that elephant into bite-size pieces when you are called upon to compile a Montana legislative history.

Tip 1:  Know the documents that typically make up a compiled Montana legislative history

    • Copy of the chronological history of the bill showing what happened to it as it went through the legislative process
    • Copy of the bill as originally introduced
    • Minutes of the House committee hearings,  plus minutes of committee meetings  when the bill was voted on and any exhibits there may be to these meetings
    • Minutes of the Senate committee hearings, plus minutes of committee meetings when the bill was voted on and any exhibits there may be to these meetings

 A common misconception about the committee minutes is that they will state specifically what was said.  However, the minutes are NOT verbatim transcripts.  Rather, they are summaries of the proceedings and testimony before the committees.

Exhibits, if there are any, can include items such as proposed amendments, copies of written testimony, roll call attendance, roll call votes, and visitor registers.

Tip 2:  Find out if someone has already done the work for you

Always check to see if someone has already compiled a legislative history on the law you are interested in.  The State Law Library has put together many Montana legislative histories over the years.   The Jameson Law Library also has a small collection.   These previously compiled histories are arranged by year and chapter number of the session law, so have that information in hand when you inquire.

Tip 3:  Understand where to find documents & the format they are in – it’s a bit odd in Montana

The documents you need to retrieve are found in different places and come in different formats depending on when the session law was passed.  So you might think of compiling a legislative history in terms of five time periods:

  • Before 1977
  • 1977 to 1979
  • 1981 to 1995
  • 1997
  • 1999 to date
  • Outside of legislative histories already compiled, anything before 1977 requires contacting the Montana Historical Society.  Their collection includes committee minutes back to the early 1950s.
  • For the years 1977 to 1979, the process is, admittedly, a bit convoluted.  In simplest terms, locating the bill number requires using the Laws of Montana table of contents or index, then using either the House Journal or the Senate Journal to determine which committees considered the bill, and then locating the actual committee minutes.
  • Fortunately, in 1981, the History and Final Status volumes came along, making the task of translating a chapter number into a bill number much easier.  Using these volumes you can easily look up your bill and find a list of the committees to which the bill was referred.  In the Jameson Law Library, committee minutes from 1987 to 1997 are available in microfiche.
  • For 1997, the process is the same as for 1981 to 1995, except that exhibits are not included in the print version – instead they are only available on a CD-ROM.   To locate the CD-ROM you will need the name of the committee, the day the hearing was held, and the exhibit number.  Of course, listening to these can be problematic if you don’t have the technology that may be necessary to play these older CDs.  In that case, you will need to request print copies from either the Montana Historical Society or the State Law Library.
  • The legislative history compilation process rolled into the digital age in 1999 and from then on you can access the history and final status of bills and committee minutes online at the Montana Legislature’s website.  However, there are some differences among the years as to what materials are available and how to locate them.  For example, in 1999 and 2001 only very brief summaries of committee minutes are available in print; you must listen to audio recordings for expanded information.

Tip 4:  Yes, Virginia, there is a research guide available.

When you’re ready to dig in and compile a legislative history, turn to the Montana State Law Library’s excellent Montana Legislative History Research Guide.  The guide is detailed and provides the specific information you need to compile a Montana legislative history.

Tip 5:  Gain an understanding into Montana legislative history and legislative intent.

Take time to read through Lost Legislative Intent: What Will Montanans Do When the Meaning Isn’t Plain?, a law review article written by Jameson Law Library Director, Stacey Gordon and Helia Jazayeri (70 Mont. L. Rev. 1, 2009).  The article begins with discussion on the controversy generated regarding the use of legislative history by courts and then goes on to explain what legislative history is and how both the U.S. Supreme Court and the Montana Supreme Court use legislative history in statutory interpretation.  The article argues that the Montana Legislature should ensure comprehensive access to legislative history and also describes the current barriers to accessing Montana legislative history, ending with some suggestions for a more reliable and accessible legislative record.

Tip 6:  Ask a law librarian for help.

If you have questions about what to do, run into problems (maybe with that old microfiche reader in the law library), or can’t find something you need … don’t hesitate to stop by the Ref Desk, call, or email any of us in the Jameson Law Library.   As always, we are more than happy to help out!

Photo: amolouise via photopin cc
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