Thursday, January 13, 2005

Legal Research Tip 5: Specific Primary Law Sources

These are the back issues of the e-newsletter Legal Research Tips from 2004. Since these tips are a little longer, each back issue will be published separately. Starting in 2005, all issues will be published here and no longer distributed via email.

Legal Research Tip 4: Specific Primary Law Sources
Last month we talked about locating both primary and secondary resources in public or law libraries or online. Now we can begin to examine specific primary law sources from the three branches of government. We'll start with the Legislative branch this month, followed by the Executive Branch and the Judicial Branch in upcoming months. Once again, we are concentrating on state and local resources, not federal. This tip is a little longer than usual so that I can accurately cover this material.

Legislative Branch: Acts and Statutes
The common answer to "How a Law is Made" can be traced through legislative activity. There are four main actions the legislature can take on a law. They can create new laws, or repeal, renumber or amend existing law. On the local level, legislative activity occurs as county boards or city councils perform similar actions on city or county ordinances.

Creating a New Law:
The idea for a new law can come from any citizen. A concerned citizen or group of citizens will contact their elected official, such as a State Senator or Representative, or County Board Supervisor or City Alder. Depending on the type of concern, it may be appropriate for a new statute or ordinance. The elected official will contact the appropriate agency to assist with research and language drafting. For the state legislature, this is done by the Legislative Reference Bureau. A drafting attorney will make sure that the proposed change makes sense from a legal standpoint, mainly that it doesn't interfere with Wisconsin's "legal structure." The proposal becomes either a Senate or Assembly bill, with a bill number, and is sponsored by one or more Senators or Representatives to be introduced to the entire Assembly or Senate. This introduction is known as "The First Reading."

Depending on the issues involved, the bill then goes to at least one committee to study its impact on other existing laws, the budget, and other factors. There will often be a public hearing scheduled so that citizens have a chance to weigh in on whether the Senate or Assembly should pass the bill into law. After the bill has been discussed and studied by the committee(s), it is voted on. It is reported "out of committee" and often sent to the Rules Committee. The Rules committee may debate the bill, send the bill back to the entire Assembly or Senate for a "Second Reading" or take no action. At the "Second Reading" there is additional debate or amendments before being put on the calendar for the "Third Reading."

The "Third Reading" will indicate whether the bill has final passage in one House. The bill will need to pass the other House through the same procedure listed above. If amendments are made, both Houses must concur. When the bill is accepted in both Houses, it is signed by the leaders of each, and sent to the Governor for his or her signature. The Governor may choose to veto all or part of the bill. If this happens, the legislature may override the veto with a 2/3 majority vote in each House. If the Governor fails to act on the bill, it may become law without a signature. Once a bill successfully passes the Houses and is signed by the Governor (or the veto is successfully overridden), the bill is assigned an Act number (chronologically) and is known as a "Session Law."

Every two years, all the session laws are compiled and bound together into the "Laws of Wisconsin" volumes.

Repealing or Renumbering an Existing Law
Additional functions of the legislature include repealing (or repealing and recreating) or renumbering existing statutes. All of these are measures that are not entered into lightly because of the ramifications of a repeal, or the hassle of checking all the cross-references of a renumbering. Renumbering is considered when space is needed for a large quantity of new material, to locate old material near new material on the same subject, or to relocate poorly located material that may be easily overlooked.

Legislators generally refrain from repealing existing law whenever possible, especially if the law could be amended instead. Sometimes there will be a transition period between the existing law and the repeal or recreation of law. This can be done based on the effective date of an act. In Wisconsin, acts become law the day after the publication date--unless otherwise stated elsewhere in the act. For example, if a law is passed regarding voting systems and use of certain machinery regarding voting, the effective date could be lengthened to allow all municipalities time enough to update their technology or systems.

Amending an Existing Law
An amendment alters the statute by substituting, inserting, or deleting text. To determine amended language in a bill or act, look for text that is struck through or underlined. New material always follows stricken material. It is interesting to note that when a law is amended, it is permissable to clarify and modernize language, such as changing exclusive language to be inclusive (for example, changing "he" to "he or she').

Updating the Statutes
When each biennial legislative session ends, the Revisor of Statutes Bureau codifies (takes all the Acts and figures out where each one fits in the statutes) and publishes a new edition of the official statutes, currently a 5-volume set. These printed volumes are the official edition. The changes to the statutes that occur before the next edition is published will be reflected in the unofficial version, available online. During a legislative session, changes can be tracked using the "List of Statute Sections Affected by Acts" which lists all the statute sections that have been changed in some way (created, repealed, renumbered, amended) by session laws.

Additional information about Legislative Activities and publications can be found on the WI Legislature's website: or on the WI State Law Library's website under "Wisconsin Law": .