Teaching Legal Professionals How To Do Research
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Finding Meaning in Law

This article has been archived and may no longer be updated.


Genie Tyburski, Web Manager, The Virtual Chase


   Originally published by Law Office Computing (Dec/Jan 2002) under the title, "Eleventh Hour Research." Revised to reflect resources and strategies current as of the date appearing at the end of the page.


28 January 2002. Agitated, Partner Muse taps on Lawyer X's office door. He looks up, reads her body language like a book, and immediately grows serious.

"What's the matter?" he asks with genuine concern. Personable, often funny, and always a source of legal ingenuity, Partner Muse easily befriends her fellow workers.

Brushing the hair out of her eyes, she sinks into a nearby chair as if drained of energy. "You busy?" she asks seemingly not seeing the mounds of books and papers on his desk.

Before he can reply, she laughs or sobs. X isn't sure. "Dumb question, huh?" Muse tries to smile.

"It's okay. There's nothing that needs my immediate attention," he lies.

"I'm knee-deep in trouble, X." She hesitates and then corrects herself. "No, I'm in trouble up to my eyeballs. And the only way out, as I see it, is to beg you to do some online research for me."

"No need to beg, Muse," X replies, embarrassed by her indirect praise. "What happened?"

"I asked a summer associate to conduct some research that must have been over his head. I told him to consult with you. Did anyone ask you about federal legislative history research lately?"

Lawyer X simply shakes his head.

"Well," Muse continues, unsurprised by the discovery that the law student failed to follow her advice, "I have to file a brief tomorrow in the U.S. Supreme Court. He was supposed to dig up legislative intent on a critical issue."

"Here's the work he did," Muse says handing X three sheets of paper. "As you will see, he found two paragraphs in two different committee reports. Unfortunately, neither is relevant."

Lawyer X looks at the third piece of paper. It was a two-paragraph memo stating the obvious - that he had found little of interest.

"What's the issue?" X asks, settling in for a detailed briefing.

Though Partner Muse and Lawyer X may work through the night to research and write the portion of the brief asserting legislative intent, Muse will prevail over the trouble the inept research caused. Fortunately, the federal law in question is a recent one. Many of the legislative and related documents are available online.

In fact, lawyers faced with conducting such research can perform much of it online for federal laws enacted since 1989. It is also possible to obtain some information electronically about laws passed between 1970 and 1988, although many of the actual documents will not be available in full-text.

Look first for Congressional committee reports or prints. To the extent courts find observations about legislative intent persuasive, they generally give greater weight to these types of documents. Second, seek out debates on the floor of Congress, and finally, hearing testimony and presidential statements.

If you know the public law (e.g., 106-69) and bill (e.g., H.R. 2084) numbers, you can launch the research with LexisNexis, Congressional Universe (academic institutions only), Westlaw, Thomas, or CQ.com On Congress. The Popular Names tables for both annotated versions of the United States Code, as well as the official United States Code, and the historical notes that appear after each section of the Code, will assist you in finding a public law number. For laws enacted since 1973, you can also run a keyword query on Thomas and limit the results to public laws.

Thomas also provides the related bill number. Other sources of this information include Statutes At Large (since 1975), CCH Congressional Index, and the CIS Congressional indexes. You will find Statutes At Large and the CIS indexes on LexisNexis and Congressional Universe.

Lawyer X begins the search for legislative intent by obtaining an index of documents relevant to the legislation. Thomas, a free Library of Congress service, offers an excellent summary of Congressional activity by bill number, especially for laws enacted since 1979. Bill tracking reports on LexisNexis (see LEGIS library), Westlaw (US-BILLTRK) and CQ.com On Congress also prove helpful.

Thomas' index provides references or links to committee reports, various bill versions, proposed amendments, floor debate, and select companion and related bills. While these documents may not represent all that pertain to the law in question, Thomas' summary gives researchers a good starting point.

Additionally, because the lawyers want evidence of legislative intent about a recent law, X will find the full-text of various bill versions, debate in the Congressional Record, and committee reports at Thomas. Without further research, he will not find relevant remarks in the Congressional Record made outside the context of debate on the legislation. He also will not find the text of hearing testimony.

Even though Thomas provides the full-text of various Congressional documents, Lawyer X may want to obtain them elsewhere for two reasons. First, for authenticity, he should retrieve a PDF copy of the document when possible. Thomas links to PDF copies at GPO Access when they are available.

Second, as a practical matter, X wants to zero in on the portion of the documents that shed light on his legal issue. Neither Thomas nor GPO Access offers robust keyword search options. For this capability, he should turn to LexisNexis or Westlaw.

With a summary of most, if not all, the documents relevant to the passage of the legislation in hand, Lawyer X can run keyword queries at LexisNexis or Westlaw and compare the results. If a particular document appearing in the index fails to turn up with a keyword search, he can then download the text from GPO Access or Thomas and use his software's find feature (Control +F) to locate the relevant portion.

An easy way to query the text of committee reports encompasses use of Westlaw's LH database. LH - or Legislative History - contains select congressional committee reports as published in United States Code, Congressional and Administrative News from 1948 to 1989. For recent years, it houses the text of all reports including those whose bills never become law.

Lawyer X quickly locates reports pertaining to the legislation in question by using the public law number in his query. Like this:


where to stands for topic. He then uncovers relevant language in the reports by using Westlaw's "locate" feature.

Next, he switches to the Congressional Record (CR) where he runs various queries using terms he thinks may appear in the text of the debate. He again compares the hit list with Thomas' summary.

But in reviewing the pertinent sections of the reports and debates, X fails to find much Muse can use. He decides to go the extra mile (It is the Supreme Court, after all!) and seek evidence of intent in hearing transcripts. He turns to Westlaw's USTESTIMONY, which contains Federal Document Clearing House transcripts of select oral testimony as well as prepared statements. Lexis users will find this database in the LEGIS Library (HEARNG).

X finds no hearing testimony and none appears in Thomas' summary. This does not necessarily mean, though, that none took place.

House and Senate committee Web sites may publish witness lists, prepared statements, and transcripts of oral testimony. Since Thomas provides linked lists of Congressional committees involved with the legislation, it offers a direct means for accessing such materials should they exist. You can also find Committee sites by connecting to the home pages of the House and Senate.

After collecting all that is relevant to the legislation that became law, Lawyer X starts the research anew in the previous Congress. Keyword queries at Thomas, coupled with a search of news sources, if necessary, will uncover the existence of similar legislation. He hopes that documents produced during the consideration of earlier legislation will lend support to Muse's issue.

Early morning dawns ...

"Yes!" X shouts, exhausted after several hours of research. His review of committee reports and floor debates that took place during previous Congresses uncovered language favorable to Muse's position.

He gathers the printouts intending to drop them off in her office before going home for a few hours sleep. He hears the distant sound of a door closing, but ignores it.

Quickly, X organizes the documents, shuts down the computer, and leaves his office.

He starts down the hall and spies M, the early bird, briskly walking his way. She raises her hand in greeting. "Hey, X...." she begins.

"No!" he interrupts, fearing another eleventh hour request for help.

M takes into account his rumpled appearance. "Rough night, huh?"

"I need sleep," X says unnecessarily.

Facetiously, M asks, "You haven't forgotten about the breakfast meeting, have you? The new," she pauses for emphasis, "Important client?"

"Yeah, tomorrow," X answers practically asleep on his feet.

"X, it's today. At 7:30." Then, checking her watch, "In less than three hours."

X opens his mouth, and then shuts it. He staggers a few steps, and then straightens. M watches him leave, thinking - but not quite certain - she hears him muttering.

"I can do this. I'm young. I can do this. I can do this."


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Created: 28 January 2002
Revised: 18 October 2007 (no text revisions)
URL: https://www.virtualchase.com/articles/archive/legislative_history.html

Suggestions: Genie Tyburski, tvceditor [at] virtualchase [dot] com