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Disclaimer: This web page explains how to conduct research. The suggestions contained in this explanation do not constitute legal advice.

The terms "legislative history" and "legislative intent" are often used interchangeably by researchers whose goal is to determine the intent of a particular bill or specific language enacted by the General Assembly of Virginia. (If you are interested in tracking the progress of a bill through the General Assembly, including seeing all printed versions of the bill and amendments thereto, use the Legislative Information System bill tracking database).

Virginia does not keep official legislative history, like that which can be found at the congressional level. We do not have transcripts of floor debates or committee discussions about a bill, nor are standing committee reports issued which explain or state the purpose for proposals.

That being understood, however, there are a few ways researchers can attempt to glean the legislative intent of particular pieces of legislation:

I. Check for legislative studies on the topic.
II. Request the legislative draft file of the bill.
III. View videotapes of floor proceedings.
IV. Use other sources.

I. LEGISLATIVE STUDIES

Specially appointed subcommittees, permanent commissions, or state agencies are often charged with studying particular topics and reporting the findings and/or recommendations to the General Assembly and the Governor. To search the database of studies reported, go to the List of Legislative Studies: House and Senate Documents. If you wish to obtain a copy of a study report, contact the Legislative Bill Room, General Assembly Building, Basement, Richmond, Virginia 23219, (804) 786-6984.

II. LEGISLATIVE DRAFT FILES

Legislative draft (LD) files are created by the Division of Legislative Services' staff when the request to draft a bill is received. The files may (or may not) contain the following:

  • Final draft of the bill
  • Copies showing substantive drafting changes
  • Bill request
  • Correspondence between DLS staff and the requester
  • Background information or materials which explain the proposal

Release of LD files:

There are a couple of caveats regarding release of the LD files, which are governed by Virginia Code § 30-28.18.

  1. All files created prior to 1989 are confidential and can only be released with permission of the requester*. If he or she is deceased, then the file is closed.

  2. Files from 1989 to the present are open to the public if the bill was enacted into law. Legislative draft files for failed bills can only be released with permission of the requester*.

*The requester is the legislator who requested the bill draft. The chief patron is the legislator who introduced the bill and whose name appears just on the face of the bill. Though the requester is usually the chief patron, that is not always the case.

Requesting a Legislative Draft file:

To request access to an LD file from the Legislative Reference Center, you need to know the bill number (or chapter of the Acts of Assembly) and year of the legislation. Remember that the LD files are created for specific bills; there is no legislative history for entire Code sections.

The amount of research you need to do before requesting the LD file depends on the amount of information you are starting with:

  • If you know only conceptually what the law is about, then search the Code of Virginia to determine the Code section (e.g., § 55-331).

  • Locate the parenthetical reference at the end of the section, which provides a "map" to the amendments to that section.

    (Code 1950, § 8-906; 1952, c. 658; 1968, c. 251; 1977, c. 624; 1993, c. 580.)

    For example, the above citation means that section existed prior to the Virginia Code of 1950 (i.e., the current version of the Code), was amended in 1952 by chapter 658 of the Acts of Assembly, etc.

  • Backtrack through each amendment in the Acts until you see the wording you are interested in appear in italics. That signifies language that was added. Conversely, language which appears as stricken through was deleted.

  • Locate the bill number in brackets at the top right, underneath the title of the Act (e.g., [H 1408]).

  • Contact the Legislative Reference Center at (804) 786-3591 with the information about the bill. Staff will check the file and let you know if it contains any background notes, memoranda, correspondence, or any other materials which would provide even a hint of original intent. Written request for access to LD file may be required. Allow five (5) working days for a response to your request. Files which are confidential and require permission before releasing may take up to a month's turnaround time.

Please remember throughout this process: Virginia does not collect or maintain legislative history. Looking for a "needle in a haystack" in the legislative draft files is as close as researchers can come to determining intent. However, it must be clearly understood that anything found in the LD files provides only an indication of the intent of the person who requested that the bill be drafted. By the time the bill is enacted, it has gone through the complex legislative process, often incorporating many changes from time the original version was drafted. The intent of the General Assembly in passing the bill is generally not recorded, and if it is, it is printed on the face of the bill or referenced in the Code of Virginia.

III. VIDEO RECORDINGS

Video recordings of proceedings on the House and Senate floor are available for viewing or purchase a while after adjournment. For more information, please call the House Clerk's office at 804-698-1619 or the Senate Clerk's office at 804-698-7400.

IV. OTHER SOURCES

Other possible means of discovering background information about a bill or code section include:

  • Reviewing the Fiscal Impact Statement, if applicable. These statements are prepared by the Department of Planning and Budget or another state agency and contain a summary of the legislation, the anticipated cost to the state, and other pertinent information. They are available through the Legislative Reference Center or appropriate Clerk's office.

  • Looking in the major Virginia newspapers for articles which may have been written explaining the proposal during the General Assembly session (January - March).

  • Searching for Attorney General opinions on the topic.

  • Researching Virginia law review articles on point.

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