Monday, October 3, 2011

Session Laws Online

Session laws are the laws published in the order they were passed during legislative sessions. We have a complete set for Washington, of course, but for other states, we've had to rely on microfiche in combination with print. Microfiche is a whole lot better than no access at all, but it can be cumbersome to deal with session laws in fiche, especially if you're trying to trace multiple amendments to a statute over the years.

HeinOnline has been building its Session Laws Library for a few years. And in its September newsletter the company announced that the files now go all the way back to inception for each state. So on HeinOnline you can find, e.g., all the Illinois session laws 1809-2010. For many states, the library even includes territorial session laws. Washington's coverage includes territorial laws, 1854-1888, as well as state laws, 1889- .

Here in Washington, we are fortunate that the legislature has loaded a lot of material on its website. Until recently, you could get session laws back to about 1997—and now the Laws of Washington are available in PDF all the way back to 1889! (The Illinois General Assembly's site has public acts beginning in 1997.)

Many law students turn first to LexisNexis and Westlaw for most of their research. Those systems do have a lot of great content, but in this case, you'd be better off with HeinOnline or the legislature's site if you're looking for anything older than 1988. For instance, on Westlaw, the backfiles of the legislative services for Illinois (IL-LEGIS-OLD) and Washington (WA-LEGIS-OLD) start in 1988. On LexisNexis, the Washington Advance Legislative Service (WAALS) and the Illinois Advance Legislative Service (ILALS) both cover 1989-present.

Update (Oct. 3, 2011): I didn't want to have all my examples be Washington, so I chose Illinois arbitrarily. Today, through my colleague Peggy, I learned that the Western Illinois University Libraries and the Illinois State Library have a project to digitize Illinois laws. The project is incomplete, but you can already see all the laws from the Northwest Territory days through 1920. You can read the laws from when Abe Lincoln was practicing!

This reinforces my point: don't rest with LexisNexis and Westlaw: check to see what other resources are out there!

Photo credit: Microsoft clip art of Illinois license plate

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