Using Legislative History

The term “legislative history” can mean two different things. First, “legislative history” refers to the chronological progress of a bill through the legislative process from its introduction to its enactment into law. In the legal field, however, “legislative history,” also often refers to the collection of documents that are created during that process. Judges and attorneys often turn to these documents to try to determine why the legislature enacted a particular law or to aid in the interpretation of a portion of the law. This process of using legislative history to interpret a law is often referred to as finding the “legislative intent” behind the law.


The Montana legislature meets every other year on odd years for 90 days, starting in January. The legislative process begins when a legislator agrees to sponsor a bill and introduces the bill in either the House or the Senate (sometimes called the First Reading of the bill). Each chamber of the legislature divides its members into smaller committees that tackle certain topics, such as Taxation, Natural Resources, and Judiciary issues. After a bill is introduced, the Senate President or the House Speaker refers it to the proper committee[s] in that chamber for further study and consideration. The committee holds public hearings on the bill to collect information and discuss the pros and cons of the bill. A committee can decide to “table” a bill, which effectively kills the bill and ends the process, or the committee can decide to send the bill to the full House of Representatives or Senate with a recommendation that the bill “do pass,” “do pass as amended,” or “do not pass.” The entire House or Senate (sometimes called the “Committee of the Whole”) then debates and votes on the bill (known as the Second Reading of the bill). Additional amendments may be offered and voted on at this time. Finally, the bill is subject to a simple yes or no vote by the entire membership of either the House or Senate and each member’s vote is recorded (Third Reading of the bill). No amendments may be considered at that time.

A bill that passes with a majority on Third Reading is then transmitted to the other chamber of the legislature and the process begins again with the bill being referred to another committee for consideration. If both chambers eventually pass the bill in identical form, the bill is enrolled (that is, checked for accuracy and then signed by the leader of each chamber) and sent to the Governor for his/her signature.

If the bills passed by the House and Senate are not exactly the same, the second chamber to review the bill returns the bill to the first chamber “approved with amendments,” with a request that the first chamber “concur in” or agree with the amendments. The Committee of the Whole of the first chamber then votes on whether to concur in the amendments passed by the second chamber. Generally, if the amendments are not concurred in, the first chamber will request a conference committee with the second chamber. A conference committee made up of members of the House and the Senate then meets to resolve any differences in the two versions of the bill. If the conference committee members can settle their differences, the bill is enrolled and sent to the Governor.

The Governor can sign the bill, veto the bill, or allow the bill to become law without his/her signature. If the bill is vetoed while the legislature is still in session, the legislature may vote to override the veto. (See Montana Constitution, Art. VI, § 10 for further information).

At the end of each session, all of the laws passed by the legislature during that session are compiled into a set known as the Laws of Montana (also referred to as the “session laws”). Each bill that is signed by the Governor during the session is assigned a chapter number. Later, the Code Commissioner compiles these session laws with the laws of the state passed by previous legislatures that are still in effect. The Commissioner removes any repealed laws, amends the language of prior laws, and adds new laws passed by the legislature during the session. The Commissioner then arranges the laws that are currently in effect into a subject or topical arrangement known as the Montana Code Annotated


The primary sources for determining legislative intent in Montana are the minutes of the meetings of the legislative committees that considered the bill, the exhibits to those hearings, and the various versions of the bill that were proposed throughout this process. Verbatim transcripts of the legislative committee meetings do not exist; the minutes are merely summaries of the proceedings and the testimony before the committees. Exhibits often are attached to these minutes. The exhibits include items such as proposed amendments, copies of written testimony, roll call attendance, roll call votes, and visitor registers.

In 1997, the legislature began making audiotapes of its committee hearings. And in 2005, the legislature began recording selected hearings as Real Audio files that can be accessed over the Internet. Thus, even though it is not possible to read a full transcript of the hearings, you can listen to complete hearings for some recent sessions. In addition, beginning with the 2003 session, the legislature started recording the meetings of the Committee of the Whole of each house (that is, the floor debates in each house of the legislature). Prior to that time, no transcript, summary, or recording of these floor debates was made beyond the short notations in the daily Journal for each house.

Based on the foregoing, a “typical” compiled legislative history from the State Law Library consists of the following documents:

  • A copy of the chronological history of the bill that shows what happened to the bill as it proceeded through the legislative process;
  • A copy of the bill as it was originally introduced (“Introduced Bill”), which enables you to track proposed changes to the bill through the process (we do not normally include other versions of the bill unless specifically requested);
  • The minutes of the House committee hearing[s] about the bill and the minutes of the meeting[s] at which the committee[s] voted on the bill, as well as the exhibits to those meetings, if any;
  • The minutes of the Senate committee hearing[s] about the bill and the minutes of the meeting[s] at which the committee[s] voted on the bill, as well as the exhibits to those meetings, if any;

As noted above, additional information may be available from the audio/video recordings of committee meetings (recorded since 1997) and/or the recordings of the floor debates (recorded since 2003). Other versions of the bills may also be helpful. Finally, Journal entries for a bill may provide some additional information. However, the law library does not include these items in a compiled legislative history unless specifically requested to do so.


Usually, the need for a legislative history arises after you have found a particular section of a statute in the Montana Code Annotated that seems unclear or ambiguous. If you cannot find Montana Supreme Court cases that explain what that section means, you may want to consult the legislative history to try to determine what the legislature meant when it enacted that ambiguous language.

Following each section of the MCA, there is a “History” notation that lists each of the session laws that either enacted (preceded by “En.”) or amended (preceded by “amd.”) the section. These references are usually in the following format:

En. Sec. 156, Ch. 480, L. 1997; amd. Sec. 29, Ch. 311, L. 2001.

This can be translated to mean that the MCA section was originally enacted by section 156 of Chapter 480 of the 1997 Laws of Montana and was amended by section 29 of Chapter 311 of the 2001 Laws of Montana. There will be a separate legislative history for the original enactment of a bill and a separate legislative history for each of the subsequent amendments to that bill. Some statutes have been amended numerous times throughout the years. You may not be interested in each and every amendment. In order to determine whether an amendment was important (that is, touched on a subject or particular language in the statute that is relevant to your case), you may want to look at each of the session laws first. You may discover that the language in which you are interested was added in 2001 and the amendments in 1993, 1987, and the original enactment in 1983 were unrelated to your topic. Thus, it may not be necessary (or wise) to spend time compiling histories for those other session laws.

Once you are sure that you need a legislative history for a particular session law or bill, you are ready to begin compiling your history. The first step when compiling a legislative history is the same as the first step when doing any legal research: see if someone else has already done the work for you! Throughout the years, the State Law Library has compiled many legislative histories of Montana statutes and a few histories of bills that were introduced in the legislature but that did not pass. These histories are kept in file folders in the grey vertical files on the West side of the library, on either side of the Public Access Computer area. The histories are arranged by year and then by the chapter number of the session law. If you are not able to visit the law library, you can call or email us to determine whether a particular legislative history has already been compiled. We provide copies of previously compiled legislative histories via mail, fax, or email, and we also compile new legislative histories for Montana residents. We charge a fee for this service. Click here for more information on fees.

If we have not yet compiled a legislative history and you would like to compile it yourself, the next step in the process depends on when the session law was passed.

**This content has been provided by the State Law Library of Montana. To access the full document, please click here.**

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