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Pennsylvania Legislative History: FAQs

This guide defines "legislative history", reviews the Pennsylvania legislative process, and reviews what types of Pennsylvania legislative history documents are available.

What is a legislative history?

A legislative history is a compilation of documents created during a law's journey through the legislative process. A legislative history of a federal law may include committee reports, transcripts of committee hearings, comments and debate about the law published in the Congressional Record, and different versions of the bill.

There are fewer types of documents available for Pennsylvania legislative histories. The main documents used in Pennsylvania legislative histories are comments and debate from the House Journals and Senate Journals of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, the fiscal notes issued by the Appropriations Committees, and the different versions of the bills.

What is the purpose of a legislative history?

Researchers may assembly legislative histories for laws in order to determine if these documents reveal any intent on the part of the legislature in passing the law. Researchers can use expressions of legislative intent to help determine or argue the purpose of a law. Legislative intent is especially useful if there are no case decisions that interpret the law.

The use of legislative history in statutory construction is somewhat controversial. The late Justice Scalia was a particularly fierce and influential critic of the practice, arguing that legislative history is an unreliable guide to legislative intent. See Michael Koby, The Supreme Court's Declining Reliance on Legislative History: The Impact of Justice Scalia's Critique, 36 Harv. J. on Legis. 369, 377-380 (1999). Nonetheless, the Pennsylvania legislature has defined certain circumstances when it is appropriate to use legislative histories to interpret Pennsylvania law.

The Statutory Construction Act, 1 Pa. C.S.A. §§ 1501 et seq., provides courts with guidelines for interpreting Pennsylvania statutes. The object of all statutory interpretation is to effectuate the intent of the General Assembly. 1 Pa. C.S.A. § 1921(a). If the language of a statute is ambiguous, then the statute's legislative history is one of the factors that a court may consider in figuring out what the General Assembly wanted.  1 Pa. C.S.A. § 1921(c)(6). However, if the words of a statute are unambiguous, you may not use legislative history to show that a different result was intended. 1 Pa. C.S.A. § 1921(b); see also Com. v. Brown, 981 A.2d 893, 897-98 (Pa. 2009) ("The General Assembly's intent is best expressed through the plain language of the statute. . . . [O]nly when the words of a statute are ambiguous should a court seek to ascertain the intent of the General Assembly through consideration of statutory construction factors[.]").