March 2015 Bar Bulletin
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March 2015 Bar Bulletin

Divining Intent - Legislative History Resources at the Law Library

By Rick Stroup
Assistant Director Public Law Library


In a memorable scene from Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein," young Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, played by Gene Wilder, discovers his grandfather's secret medical library. Once there, he lays his hands upon a dusty tome with the apt and hilarious title How I Did It, from which the eager young doctor learns how his infamous ancestor successfully reanimated dead tissue and created life.

When patrons come to us asking for help conducting legislative history research, most are hoping that there is a similar tome or tomes we librarians can pull off of a secret shelf somewhere that will, in effect, provide a succinct analysis of why the Legislature passed, or did not pass, a particular law. Tomes and a few secret shelves we do have, but sadly none contain anything that handy.

Here is a breakdown of the dialogue I typically hold with someone who needs to do legislative research, tuned in particular to the materials the Public Law Library either collects physically or refers to online, and presented in the sequence I believe is most often the most efficient way to approach the task.

What We Have (and Don't Have) on Those Secret Shelves

Truthfully, the shelves themselves are in plain sight with the rest of our Washington resources, but these particular materials are usually given a wide berth by most researchers, so there is a bit of mystery at least. We keep the following in hard copy.

Washington State Session laws all the way back to the beginning of the territory in 1854. This resource will show you the final version of the bill passed by the Legislature and most often via "Add" and "Strike" marks how the bill affected existing laws. These same materials are also available electronically from the Legislature's website at

Washington House and Senate bills from 1909 and 1907, respectively, to the present. This set includes all versions of all bills considered by either body regardless of whether they became law. While they lack exact "intent" language, you can see how the language of the proposed bill evolved over the session and thus get a better feeling for what the sponsors were trying to accomplish and what obstacles they encountered. These same materials are also available electronically from the Legislature's website from 1991 forward at

Washington House and Senate journals from 1907 to today. The term "journal" implies that there might be some genuine intent stuff here, and sometimes there is. But most often these can only give you more information about the chronological sequence of a bill's progress, the titles of the committees that handled it, its relationship with companion bills, and any veto messages from the governor.

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