Wisconsin Legislative History Research Guide

Table of Contents
  1. Compiling a Legislative History
  2. Drafting Records
  3. Additional Resources

The Wisconsin Supreme Court relies on legislative history to determine legislative intent in cases where a statute is ambiguous. Wisconsin legislative history, while not as complete as federal legislative history, includes several types of documents from which to infer legislative intent. Compiling a legislative history of a Wisconsin law includes tracking changes made to the proposed law by comparing the language of proposed amendments to the final bill, analyzing amendments to the statute over time, reviewing the legislative drafting records, and seeking additional information from the Legislative Council, Judicial Council, Legislative Reference Bureau or any other special committee that might have been involved with the legislation.

Compiling a Legislative History

  1. Identify the act number (or chapter number if the law dates from 1983 or earlier) and year of the legislation that is at issue by finding the law in either of the two subject compilation of laws:
    1. West's Wisconsin Statutes Annotated [KFW 2430 .A43] provides a citation to the act number and year of the current law and all prior versions of the law in the statute's "source note." West's Wisconsin Statutes Annotated is the most convenient source for texts of comments by the Legislative Council or Judicial Council if either body was involved with the act.
    2. Wisconsin Statutes [KFW 2430 .A22] provides the act number and year of the current law in the "history note" to the statute and also provides act and year citations going back to the original law.
  2. Look up the act in the appropriate year of Laws of Wisconsin [KFW 2425.2 .L39], the chronological compilation of acts dating back to 1848. If amending an existing law, the act will include the law's original language and the language of the final amendments. The act may contain relevant language, such as a preamble that states the legislature's intent, not contained in Wisconsin Statutes or West's Wisconsin Statutes Annotated.
  3. While reading the act in the Laws of Wisconsin, note the bill number for the act located above the act number. The bill number can be used to track the progress of the bill in either the Assembly Journal or Senate Journal [KFW 2406] for that legislative session.
  4. Review the drafting records of the act (enrolled act, LRB, Legislative, or Judicial Council analysis, fiscal estimate, proposed amendments and Committee Records). The evolution of the bill through various proposals may provide an insight into the legislature's intent.
  5. If the act originated from the Legislative Council, there may be other information available from the Council, including Council Reports to the Legislature, Discussion Papers, committees' Reports to the Council, Staff Briefs and Memoranda for various committees, and Summaries of Proceedings of committee hearings, including summaries of testimony presented. The Law Library binds this material into multi-volume sets for each session (available in the Wisconsin Room and Archives.) To see if the law under review was a product of the Legislative Council, check the annotations in West's Wisconsin Statutes Annotated or the Bulletin of Proceedings for the legislative session.
  6. It may be necessary to review several acts that amended a statute to track the changes to the law that produced the ambiguous language. To be thorough, it may be appropriate to review bills from previous legislatures, as well as the drafting documents related to those bills, to discern the legislature's intent.

Finally, additional information may be gleaned from the procedural history of the act or bill. Procedural histories can by found by using the subject index in the Bulletin of Proceedings of the Wisconsin Legislature [KFW 2406] for the session that produced the act. The Bulletin will refer you to specific pages detailing the legislative process in either the Assembly Journal or Senate Journal for the session. Or, use the bill number connected to the act to find the legislative process, since the bills are listed in numerical order in the Journals.

Compiling a legislative history for lengthy and detailed budget bills is difficult because there is no index to the hundreds of pages of budget bill drafting materials. Contact the LRB for assistance by telephoning (608) 266-0341 or writing to: Legislative Reference Bureau One East Main Street, P.O. Box 2037, Madison, WI 53701-2037.


Drafting Records

A drafting record is a collection of all written materials related to a particular bill collected by the legislative drafting attorney assigned to each bill, resolution or act introduced since 1927. Drafting records are organized by session year and act (or chapter) number. Drafting records vary widely; many contain little information that can be used to determine legislative intent.

Drafting records may contain (usually in the following order):

  1. The enrolled act (adopted act);
  2. The original proposal (either the Senate or Assembly bill);
  3. The fiscal estimate of the law's impact on state revenues and expenses (since 1957);
  4. A brief Legislative Reference Bureau (LRB) analysis by the drafter (since 1967) or, if the bill originates from the Legislative or Judicial Councils, an analysis from the committee of the council that prepared the bill;
  5. Amendments to the bill in order of their introduction;
  6. The drafting person's or group's request, and the drafting attorney's instructions and correspondence;
  7. The draft proposal (bill);
  8. The Committee Report. The report records the date and vote on the recommendation to refer the bill to the legislature. There may be a record of hearings on the bill consisting of a list of those appearing or registering for or against the bill.


Locating drafting records from the current legislative session:

  • Marquette University Law Library maintains paper records from the current session (copies of proposed bills, amendments, fiscal notes and LRB analyses) in binders in the Wisconsin Room.
  • These may also be requested from the Legislative Reference Bureau (see contact information above.)

Locating drafting records from prior legislative sessions:

  • Records from the prior legislative session are available from the Wisconsin Legislature (1999 - ).
  • Records are available at Marquette University Law Library on microfiche (1927-1998).

Additional Resources


For more information on Wisconsin legislation history, the following articles and presentations may be consulted:

Researching Legislative History in Wisconsin, by Michael J. Keane.
Madison: Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau, 2006 [Wisconsin Brief 06-10.]

"How a Bill Becomes a Law," State of Wisconsin 2003-2004 Blue Book, 253-257. Compiled by the Legislative Reference Bureau. Madison: Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau, 2003.

"How to Find Resources Relevant to Legislative History Research on Wisconsin Laws," by A. Peter Cannon. 1997 State Bar of Wisconsin Midwinter Convention [Program materials], v. II, 459-467.
Location: KFW 2472 .S722, Law Library Wisconsin Room

"Judicial Interpretation of Legislative Intent and Legislative History Documents," by N. Patrick Crooks. 1997 State Bar of Wisconsin Midwinter Convention [Program materials], v. II, 481-488.
Location: KFW 2472 .S722, Law Library Wisconsin Room

"Legislative History: The Philosophies of Justices Scalia and Breyer and the Use of Legislative History by the Wisconsin State Courts," by Kenneth R. Dortzbach.
80 Marquette Law Review 161-225 (1996-1997).
Location: Law Library Upper Stacks
Also on HeinOnline (access is restricted to members of the Marquette Community)

"Researching Legislative Intent: Documentation Available Through the Wisconsin Legislative Council Staff," by Ronald L. Sklansky. 1997 State Bar of Wisconsin Midwinter Convention [Program materials], v. II, 471-479.
Location: KFW 2472 .S722, Law Library Wisconsin Room

"Researching Legislative Intent in Wisconsin: A Suggested Procedure," by David H. Nispel. 56 Wisconsin Bar Bulletin 10-12, 59-60 (April 1983).
Location: Law Library Upper Stacks


Updated 2/10