Performing Massachusetts Legislative History

Find out how to trace a Massachusetts law

Starting Your Legislative History

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 (e.g., 276 MGL 26A)
Session Law published in the Acts and Resolves (e.g., 1995 Acts 60 Section 3)
Bill Number (e.g., 1995 HB 543 [House Bill] or 2006 SB 445 [Senate Bill])

General Law Citations: The General Laws are laws that are general in nature and are organized by subject. Private companies publish "annotated" editions of the General Laws. Notes are included at the end of each chapter and section of these editions, which include when the law was added and revised.

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 sometimes are looking at the entire law's history; other times they are looking for background on a particular amendment.

Acts and Resolves Citations: Acts and Resolves are yearly compilations of laws passed by the Massachusetts General Court, the state's legislature. These laws are arranged chronologically. 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 Acts and Resolves from 1692 to 2010 are digitized and available through our website  More recent Session Laws are available on the legislature's website.

Compiling Bill Histories:

  1. 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 listing acts with corresponding bill numbers in a volume called the Bulletin of Committee Work. For other years of the Acts, the House and Senate Journals have a subject index. 
  2. Find Bill Histories: The Bulletin of Committee Work and its companion volume, the Legislative Recordcontain short bill history summaries from the years 1907 to 2000. 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 recent bill histories, information can be found on both on the legislature’s website and Instatrac, a bill tracking service available in the Library.

Find the Original Bill(s): The 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 legislature’s website and Instatrac.

  1. Finding Additional Information:
    • Instatrac: 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. Available for use in the Library only.
    • House and Senate Proceedings: The Library has recordings of formal sessions of the legislature and some selective hearings. They are in video format starting in 1996 and audio format from the mid-1980s and the hearings are cataloged in our online catalog. There is a listing of the Library's holdings of legislative sessions by year at the Reference Desk.
    • State House News Service: The Library has a subscription to the State House News Service. Their archives are online from 1986 to the present and on microfilm at the State Library from 1972 to 1997. This source also includes a database of press releases issued by various groups and entities. The 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.
    • Boston Newspapers: The library has ProQuest Boston Globe online going 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.
    • Governor's Press Releases: Press releases can sometimes provide comments on legislation being signed into law.  The most recent press releases are available on the Governor's website; 2007 to current can also be found in the State Library’s digital repository.  The State House News Service has a database of press releases on their website going back to 1996, and the library also has a collection of press releases in print. 
    • Legislative Packages (at the 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 (at the State Archives for bills between 1964 and 2006): Copies of engrossed bills, position papers, sometimes miscellaneous subject files and veto messages, which may help in determining intent.
    • Legislative Research Council Reports: The New England School of Law Library has digitized many reports published by the Massachusetts Legislative Research Council between 1964 and 1996. These reports, usually filed as bills, provide detailed background information on topics of interest to the legislature.
    • Video Guide by the State Library on Tracing Massachusetts Legislative History (YouTube)

Outside Resources:

House Clerk: State House Room 145, 24 Beacon Street, Boston MA 02133; 617-722-2356

Senate Clerk: State House Room 335, 24 Beacon Street, Boston MA 02133; 617-722-1276

Massachusetts State Archives: 218 Morrissey Blvd, Boston MA 02125; 617-727-2816

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