How to trace a Massachusetts law
Starting Your Legislative History
Types of Citations
The starting place for most research is a citation of some sort. A citation could come in one of three forms:
- Massachusetts General Laws citation (e.g., 276 M.G.L. 26A)
- Session Law published in the Acts and Resolves citation (e.g., 1995 Mass. Acts Chapter 60, Section 3)
- House of Representatives or Senate Bill Number citation (e.g., 1995 HB 543 [House Bill] or 2006 SB 445 [Senate Bill])
Massachusetts General Laws Citations
The Massachusetts General Laws is the official statutory code and a subject-based arrangement of the laws passed by the Massachusetts General Court of a general and permanent nature.
Annotated editions of these laws contain notes at the end of each chapter and section, which include when the law was added and revised, as well as references to secondary sources and court decisions. Researchers can use either the Massachusetts General Laws Annotated [published by Thomson Reuters] or the Annotated Laws of Massachusetts [published by LexisNexis]
When working with a citation from the Massachusetts General Laws, write down all the citations to the Acts and Resolves that you wish to research. Researchers might be looking for the history of the entire law or just background on a particular amendment.
Acts and Resolves Citations
The Acts and Resolves are chronological compilations of laws passed by the Massachusetts General Court within a particular legislative session. These session laws provide the exact text of the law passed by the legislature, including what chapters and sections of the General Laws should be changed.
The printed volumes of the official version of the Acts and Resolves from 1692 to 2010 are digitized and available online in the State Library's digital repository. An unofficial version of the Session Laws from 1997 to the present can be found on the Massachusetts General Court website.
Compiling Bill Histories
Get the Bill Number(s)
Once you have a list of Acts to research, the next step is to determine the bill number
- For Acts from 1907-2000 there is an index volume called the Bulletin of Committee Work
- For all other years of the Acts, the House and Senate Journals have a subject index
Find Bill Histories
The printed volumes of the House and Senate Journals also include a short bill history index starting with the year 1970. These bill history summaries include dates when action took place in the legislature and the page in the Journals that details the action.
HJ and a number indicates a House Journal page. SJ and a number indicates a Senate Journal page.
- Make particular note of any entries indicating amendments to the bill
- Many times the bill is a rewritten version of an earlier bill. Note down any other previous bill numbers (they appear in the form of S and a number or H and a number)
- Repeat this process for any related bills you find
Published House Journals from 1854 to 2015/2016 have been digitized and are available in the State Library's digital repository.
Published Senate Journals from 1868 to 2007/2008 have been digitized and are available in the State Library's digital repository.
For more recent bill histories, information can be found on both the Massachusetts General Court's website and on InstaTrac, a bill tracking service [available in-house in the State Library]
Find the Original Bill(s)
The State Library has all of the bills as originally filed in bound volumes called Legislative Documents.
- These volumes are arranged by year and then by bill number
- Most of these documents are digitized and available online in the State Library's digital repository
- It is important to compare the original bill to the bill as passed and note the changes that were made during its path through the legislature
- Recent bills are also available on the Massachusetts General Court's website and InstaTrac
Available at the State Library
This bill tracking service contains a wealth of information for recent legislation. The database has material back to the 1995-1996 session, but the information is more comprehensive from 2005 to present. It includes bill text and history information, committee agendas, session calendars, public hearing notices, legislator press releases, Governor's news, state agency news, and legislator contact information. [in-house use only]
House and Senate Proceedings
The Library has recordings of formal sessions of the legislature and some selective hearings on audio and videotape [in-house use only]
- House of Representatives [audio]: November 1984 to November 1987
- House of Representatives [video]: November 1987 to present
- Senate [video]: 1993 to present
An index to House and Senate sessions on videotape and a log listing speakers and business conducted during House sessions is available at the State Library.
The State House News Service is a private news-gathering organization and reports on debates and other newsworthy happenings in the State House and in state government in general. Their archives are online from 1986 to the present and on microfilm at the State Library from 1972 to 1997 [in-house use only]
The State Library has the Boston Globe online back to 1980.
The library also has a card newspaper index that indexes articles from the Boston newspapers during the time periods from 1878-1937 and 1960-1980 [in-house use only]
Governor's Press Releases
Press releases can sometimes provide comments on legislation being signed into law.
Available at the Massachusetts State Archives
For each bill introduced in the General Court since 1775, there is a packet which includes the original petition with names of all petitioners, written changes in the bill, and sometimes other material such as letters, with margin notes.
Governor's Legislative Files
Copies of engrossed bills, position papers, sometimes miscellaneous subject files and veto messages, which may help in determining intent.
The New England School of Law Library has digitized many reports published by the Massachusetts Legislative Research Council between 1964 and 1994. These reports, usually filed as bills, provide detailed background information on topics of interest to the legislature.
State House Room 145, (617) 722-2356
State House Room 335, (617) 722-1276