Ghosthunting: Searching for Maryland Legislative History

This Guide was written by Michael S. Miller, Director of the Thurgood Marshall State Law Library, in 1998. The Library has retained his original text, but has added or updated hypertext links as appropriate. Researchers also may be interested in the Library's companion document, Checklist for Maryland Legislative History Research.

The title of this article was chosen advisedly: when you are trying to find the legislative history of a particularly troublesome or cryptic Maryland statute, you soon discover the spectral mists enveloping the past of almost any law. Unhappily, there are few Maryland equivalents to the Congressional committee reports, hearings, floor debate records, and other extrinsic aids to construing federal statutes.  

But all is not hopeless. The checklist that follows, while not purporting to be exhaustive, catalogs many of the materials Maryland courts have consulted when they are attempting to ferret out the genesis or meaning of an ambiguous statute.

Two prerequisites of research into legislative history in Maryland are first, understanding the legislative process and second, knowing where to look for the materials.   For assistance on the first, you should review two invaluable guides prepared by the Department  of Legislative Services.  One is the Maryland Legislator's Handbook, designed for new members of the General Assembly and is completely revised at the beginning of each four-year term of the Assembly; the other is Steps in Processing Legislation, a primer for the legislative staff.  As to the second prerequisite, locating the sources, you will find that the most comprehensive collections of the legislative record and other extrinsic aids are housed in the following three institutions:

Maryland Department of Legislative Services Library
State Circle
Annapolis, Maryland 21401
(410) 946-5400

Thurgood Marshall State Law Library
Robert C. Murphy Courts of Appeal Building
361 Rowe Boulevard
Annapolis, Maryland 21401
(410) 260-1430
toll free # 1-888-216-8156

Maryland State Archives 
360 Rowe Boulevard
P.O. Box 828
Annapolis, Maryland 21401
(410) 260-6400

Smaller collections are found in law school libraries at the University of Maryland and University of Baltimore, the Baltimore City Bar Library, the Maryland Room at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, the Attorney General's Library in Baltimore, and the Marylandia Department at the University of Maryland Library in College Park. The three Annapolis libraries, plus the Enoch Pratt and College Park libraries, are also the five major repositories for state publications.


a. Legislative Council of Maryland

1. Reports to the General Assembly

The Legislative Council, which existed from 1939 through 1975, was charged by the General Assembly with the study and investigation of problems facing the State during legislative interims.  The Council's annual reports consist of a summary of proposals from members of the General Assembly and the Council, the Governor, private organizations and individuals, and state agencies, minutes of Council meetings, and full-text copies of Council bills submitted to the next session of the Legislature. Minutes from the late 1940's on refer to Council files, some of which are in the Department of Legislative Services Library; these files may contain more detail on particular Council recommendations.

2. Research Reports

Between 1940 and 1958, the Research Division of the Legislative Council produced 32 factual and legal studies of topics ranging from almshouses to tax sales.

b.  Legislative Policy Committee: Reports of Committees to the General Assembly.

In 1976, the Legislative Policy Committee, in conjunction with other legislative committees, took over the principal roles of the Legislative Council and its Research Division.  The Policy Committee's annual reports including Summary Reports of Committees to this Committee, which include findings and recommendations made to the General Assembly, represent the work done between sessions by the Standing, Statutory, and Special Joint Committees since 1976.  Proposed bills and joint resolutions resulting from committee study generally are included in these reports.   Until 1981, each year's reports of the various Committees were printed in one volume. Since then they have been published separately, without an index. However, some individual reports are cataloged. Familiarity with the scope of each committee's work is necessary to use these sources efficiently.

Committee reports and studies on taxation and other fiscal matters, published as independent units from 1955-1996, contain a wealth of information on state and local government revenue and expenditures.

c.  Legislative Committee Bill Files, Reports, and Hearings

1. Standing Committees are probably the single most powerful force in the General Assembly. A bill that is reported favorably by a Committee in both houses will usually succeed on a floor vote.  Conversely, rare indeed is the bill that is resuscitated on the floor of either house after it fails in Committee.
In 1975, one of the more productive sources of legislative history - the bill files of the various Standing Committees - began to be retained systematically. Previously, most files were discarded after the session. The bill files are microfilmed by the Department of Legislative Services Library and subscribed to by a number of libraries including this Library, the Marshall Law Library at the University of Maryland School of Law, the University of Baltimore Law Library and, the Attorney General's Library. Typically, bill files are retained by the Committee for one year, then turned over to Legislative Services for filming. The original paper files are later deposited with the Maryland State Archives.

A comprehensive list of bills files available at the Thurgood Marshall State Law Library is available in the Library's catalog.

2. Most files contain some of the following materials, where applicable:

  • bill drafting data such as who requested the bill, who drafted it, the purpose statement, various amending steps;
  • a copy of the bill as first submitted and subsequent readers;
  • the fiscal note that must accompany every bill;
  • witness lists, copies of written testimony submitted at Committee hearings, and, occasionally, notes on oral testimony;
  • each amendment prepared for a bill, whether or not is was submitted to a vote;
  • Committee votes;
  • miscellaneous notes, including any study commission reports;
  • floor votes on the bill, if any; and
  • the Attorney General's bill-review letter which, is filed for every bill reaching the Governor's desk for signing;
  • reference to bill(s) in previous sessions on same topic.
  • Photocopies of relevant news stories, journal articles, statutes from other states.

3. Until 1982, there were few official reports of work done during the session. In that year, however, the Department of Legislative Services instituted a pilot project which generated useful documentation in the form of section-by-section bill analyses and floor reports including background information, an explanation of legislative intent, and a summary of the contents and purpose of any amendments on legislation referred to certain Standing Committees. Unfortunately, these Committee Reports ceased publication at the close of the 2001 session. Three of these Committees were in the Senate: Economic and Environmental Affairs, Judicial Proceedings, and Rules, Organization, and Procedure, and two were in the House: Rules and Executive Nominations and Judiciary.  You will find the bill analyses and floor reports in the bill files of these Committees between 1982-2001.

4. The Office of Policy Analysis of the Department of Legislative Services has since the 2002 session significantly expanded the scope of what were formerly called Fiscal Notes. The newer Fiscal and Policy Notes are generated in print, as well as on the Assembly's website and provide not only a fiscal impact statement of each introduced bill, but in many instances also contains detailed analysis of the bill: a (1.) summary, (2.) restatement of the current law on the topic and (3.) background notes alluding to reasons for the legislative proposal. Access to these fertile analysis documents are by year and bill number.

Audio taped transcripts of hearings on Senate bills have been prepared since 1992. These tapes are available only at the Department of Legislative Services Library. Contact that library for assistance in this area.

d. Audiocassettes of Senate Floor Debate.

Since 1992, debate of Senate floor proceedings have been audio taped. The Legislative Services Library provides access to these tapes for interested researchers. Additionally, the audio portions of Senate and House floor proceedings are available on the General Assembly website for the current session only.

e.  Maryland House and Senate Journals (Provincial, 1725-1774; Senate and House of Delegates, 1777-present).

As a source of legislative history, the Journals are less than a researcher might hope for. These journals do not contain transcripts of floor proceedings. In them are recorded the first reading of all the bills (purpose clause only), the Committee to which the bill was referred, subsequent amendments, the vote on amendments, and the final roll-call vote for each bill reported favorably out of committee. The rules of the Senate and House usually are printed somewhere in the Journals, and the last volume contains a subject index of all bills introduced that session along with voluminous budget-related documents in the appendices. This source provides the only easy access to bills that failed, which at times illuminate legislative history of similar bills enacted during a later session.

f.  Laws of Maryland. (Provincial, 1719-1776; State, 1777-present).

Enactments of the General Assembly are published, generally in the order they are approved by the Governor, at the end of each legislative session. In more recent years these multi-volume compilations have been indexed by subject, sponsor, bill number, and article and section of the code affected.

The text of enacted laws in these "session law" volumes can be of some value in determining legislative history, as they include the purpose clause, special sections, and the periodic inclusion of preambles, none of which are commonly codified. Also, in more recent years, the printed version of the final bill allows the researcher to see at a glance the new language, deletions from prior law, and amendments to the bill during the legislative process.

The session laws also contain amendments to municipal charters and to public local laws, the budget bills, joint resolutions, bills vetoed and the Governor's veto message, the Governor's executive orders and proclamations, certifications of results of referenda, and statements of the State's revenue and expenditures.

Before being issued in bound volumes, the session laws appear in advance sheets. These paperbound volumes include a subject index to all bills introduced during the session, failed as well as passed.

g.  90- Day Report; A Review of Legislation (1998 - date) previously published as Sine Die Report (1985 - 1997) and Legislative Session Review (1985 - 1997)

The 90-Day Report consists of two volumes. The first volume is divided into 13 major policy subject areas, with each part containing discussions of the majority of bills passed, including comparisons with previous sessions and current law, background information and discussion of major bills that did not pass. The second volume consists of all bills passed and includes a short synopsis stating the purpose of each bill. This Report is available on the General Assembly website from 1999-date.

90 Day Reports for are available from under the Publications tab

h.  Major Issues Review (1987 - date)

Summarizes legislative activity over four year periods - includes discussion of all major issues, as well as significant bills that did not pass and gubernatorial vetoes of major legislation. This information is available on the General Assembly website from 1999-date.

i.  Bill Review Letters (1999 - date)

Contains an analysis of selected bill review letters of the Maryland Attorney Generals' office. These letters provide advice to the Governor as to the successful legislation's legality, constitutionality and statutory construction. Bill Review letters are also included in the Standing Committee Bill Files.

j. Statutory Revision

The Division of Statutory Revision of the Department of Legislative Services began the bulk revision of the 1957 Edition of the Maryland Code in the early 1970's. To date, thirty Articles have been recodified. The first publication of each new Article includes revisor's notes, which explain changes made during the revision. Each bill to enact a new recodified article is accompanied by a report to the General Assembly, which contains a more complete description of the revision than that included in the revisor's notes. Files on the articles are available in the Division offices, although at this time they are not indexed and can be cumbersome to use. The head of the Division, the Revisor of Statutes, is required by law to maintain a Style Manual for statutory law.

k. Miscellaneous Fiscal Papers

The Department of Legislative Services prepares various reports on state revenues and appropriations as they affect agencies and programs. Among them are the Fiscal Effects Report, published every June (since 1969); and the Four-Year Fiscal Summary (1979 to present). The Department also issues Sunset Reviews(1979 to present), which, among other things, discuss the origins and purposes of state agencies, boards, and commissions.


a.  Governor's Messages and Vetoes

The Governor's messages often provide insight into the administration's proposed legislation.  The traditional State-of-the-State message of the Governor appears in the House and Senate Journals. The Governor's budget message usually is submitted as a separate publication with the annual state budget books.  All executive orders and proclamations are reprinted and indexed in the Journal volumes and session laws and some also appear in the Annotated Code of Maryland the Maryland Register, and COMAR. Published addresses and papers of each Governor, transcripts of press conferences, and press releases also may contain useful information about executive programs.

Executive veto messages generally appear in the Maryland House and Senate Journals (usually at the beginning of the session) and in the Laws of Maryland.

b.  Legislative and Executive Task Forces and Study Commissions.

Many statutes are the culmination of studies by bodies charged by the Governor, and, or the General Assembly with finding legislative solutions to social or economic problems. The list of each session's approved joint resolutions requesting such studies appear in the Laws of Maryland.

Each study group's papers, which usually include minutes, transcripts of public hearings, and interim and final reports, can be an excellent source of legislative history. The Library currently has in excess of 1,000 such reports issued over the past 150 years. A checklist of these reports, are available on the library's website as a separate page, as well as indexed on the library's online catalog. Maryland Study Commission and Task Force Reports. Some of the reports of earlier commissions established by joint resolutions appear in the House and Senate Journals, Maryland Public Documents, and Maryland House and Senate Documents (see c. below). For reports never distributed or not kept by the major law libraries, the best source is the Governor's Executive Files maintained at the Maryland State Archives.

c.  Annual Reports and Papers of Executive, Legislative, and Judicial Branches

The files, annual reports, and research studies done by executive branch agencies, the judiciary, and the legislature may yield pertinent history leads. Early annual reports are published in Maryland Public Documents (1829-1854) and Maryland House and Senate Documents (1856-1920). In addition to annual reports from various state agencies and institutions, these two titles include reports of select and standing legislative committees, executive messages, and contested election cases. The Library has compiled an extensive index to these historically significant series. For recent reports and studies consult one of the state depository libraries.

A subject index to the Governor's Executive Files from 1957 has been created by the State Archives. However, the State restricts use of Executive Files of a Governor whose administration ended fewer than 30 years ago. The State Archives should be consulted about the accessibility of these files.

d. Maryland Attorney General's Opinions and Files.

Because the Office of the Attorney General provides Counsel to the General Assembly, members and committees of the Legislature and task forces often seek the advice of that office on the constitutionality or construction of bills and statutes. Advice may be rendered in formal opinions, written advice of counsel, or informal oral communications.  The Attorney General's Office of Counsel to the General Assembly is also responsible for reviewing all enacted legislation for constitutionality and preparing bill-review letters to the Governor prior to approval or veto of the bills.

In addition to the Reports and Official Opinions of the Attorney General (from 1916) and Unpublished Opinions (from 1973), researchers should consult bill-review letters, copies of which are usually in the Committee Bill files or may be requested from the Office of Counsel to the General Assembly, and "legislative letters" (from 1972) in the Office of Counsel to the General Assembly. A compilation of selected bill review letters has been published by the Department of Legislative Services starting in 1999.

e.  Maryland Court of Appeals and Court of Special Appeals Briefs and Record Extracts.

Prior appeals involving statutory construction may have generated source materials on related questions. Using a citation service to check the relevant statute may help uncover such materials in briefs and record extracts submitted to the courts, as well as in the reported cases themselves.

f.  Superseded Editions of the Annotated Code of Maryland.

A complete set of the superseded volumes of the Annotated Code can be of immeasurable help in tracing the history of a statute from its original form through subsequent amendments. Most major law libraries retain all superseded volumes of the Code. Unfortunately, the publishers of the current recodified Code articles have abandoned the practice of listing the dates and chapter numbers of all amendments to a statute previously found at the end of each section of the 1957 edition of the Code, thereby complicating the search.

g.  Miscellaneous Sources.

1.  Professional and Trade Associations, Local Government, and Other Legislative Lobbyists.

Although no one library or other site contains all of the documentation produced by lobbying groups, a periodic publication of the State Ethics Commission listing all registered Maryland lobbyists and the organization each represents can help you locate such materials. Some of the more prolific advocacy groups and larger organizations publish newsletters, research papers, and convention proceedings which, can provide information on their legislative programs. Of special interest and value are many of the legislative reports in the Transactions of the Maryland State Bar Association, 1896-1991.

2.  Legislative Study Group Publications.

The Legislative Study Group, which disbanded in 1984, issued studies and periodic newsletters between 1977 and 1984 to the public and legislators. The group's Issue Reports provided actual summaries and debate about selected topics, including analyses of bills and the sponsor's intent.

3.  Annual Reports of the Commissioners on Uniform State Laws and Model Acts.

Since 1896 Maryland has been a working member of the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws. The Annual Report of the Maryland Commissioners contains references to uniform acts proposed for enactment and reports on those enacted in recent sessions. The report also lists all uniform laws adopted in Maryland. Other uniform and model law proposals are the American Law Institute codes and the Council of State Governments, Suggested State Legislation. Also helpful is Thomson/West Publishing Company's Uniform Laws Annotated for application and analysis of the various uniform state laws.

4.  Similar Statutes of Other States or the Federal Government.

Frequently, Maryland statutes are based on similar statutes enacted by other states or the United States Congress. While not dispositive, the legislative history and construction of these statutes is often persuasive evidence of the purpose and meaning of the Maryland law.

5.  Newspapers, Magazines, and Journal Articles.

Contemporary newspapers and journal articles may explain legislation or track the history of an important enactment.


Maryland has adopted four constitutions: in 1776, 1851, 1864, and 1867. The 1867 Constitution, still in force, has been amended close to 200 times.

The primary sources of state constitutional history are convention proceedings and debates.  Noteworthy secondary sources include: D. Friedman, The Maryland State Constitution: A Reference Guide (2006); A. Niles, Maryland Constitutional Law (1915); J. Harry, The Maryland Constitution of 1851 (1902); H. Walker Lewis, The Maryland Constitution-1776 (1976); and W. Myers, The Constitution of 1864 (1901). A year after Maryland's last Constitutional Convention in 1967, a revised Constitution was submitted to the people. Although it failed, many of its reform proposals have since been adopted. As a result, the voluminous output of the Convention is now fertile ground for researching the history of enactments of subsequent laws and constitutional amendments. See, e.g., Constitutional Revision Study Documents of the Constitutional Convention of Maryland (1968). While most major law libraries have a substantial portion of the proceedings and reports of the four conventions, the only comprehensive collections are in the Maryland State Archives and the Thurgood Marshall State Law Library. Many of the convention proceedings have been digitized and are now accessible at the State Archives website.