How do I learn a North Carolina General Statute’s legislative history?

In a previous blog post, I wrote about an inquiry we received at the School of Government about North Carolina General Statute Section 14-51, reproduced below. In that post, I addressed how to find the elements (what must be proven) of burglary. In this post, I will talk about how to find the legislative history of this, and any, statute.

If you’re looking for statutes online, I find it best to go to the North Carolina General Assembly’s website. It’s free, very accurate, and you can search for words or citations. Since 1943, North Carolina’s code of statutes that generally apply across the state has been called the “General Statutes.” Before then, codes had different names, and I’ll touch on those later.

For anyone new to reading statutes, the symbol § stand for section. The number in front of the dash stands for the statutory chapter where the statute can be found (here, Chapter 14, which includes most general non motor vehicle or drug criminal offenses) and the number after the dash is the particular section of the chapter. Statutes are organized in numerical order, so this statute can be found in a physical book of statutes after G.S. 14-50.43 and before G.S. 14-51.1.

To refresh the original question, our inquirer read this statute and said something like this: “The statute doesn’t include the element of ‘at night’ that I thought was an element of burglary. Aren’t all the elements of the offenses of first and second degree burglary listed in this statute? Since that element isn’t listed here, when did the legislature remove the element of ‘at night’ from the offense of burglary? I’ve searched the session laws and the NC Criminal Law blog and can’t find it. Please help.”

As I said in my original post, let’s be clear, the General Assembly has NOT—I repeat—has NOT removed the element of “at night” from proof of first degree or second degree burglary. I discuss that element and other elements of burglary in the previous post. Here, I will move on to the question about changes the legislature has made to this law.

When has the General Assembly changed the burglary statute? A Google search is not the best place to start with a question like this. As flattering as it may be to my colleagues, nor is this blog. The best starting point for legislative history is the statute itself. A good source for the statute will include language at the end of each statute labeled “history” or placed in parentheses. The version of G.S. 14-51 (first and second degree burglary) set out above includes history information inside parentheses: 1889, c. 434, s. 1; Rev., s. 3331; C.S., s. 4232; 1969, c. 543, s. 1.

This citation tells us when a statute was first passed by the legislature and tells us every time it has been amended over the years. G.S. 14-51, for example, first became law in 1889, in section 1 of a law called chapter 434. It was last amended by the General Assembly in 1969. So, there has been no change in this statute since 1969. Any changes in the law defining burglary since 1969 have come from appellate court opinions.

Citations for some time periods in our history are not represented by years. That creates what feel like indecipherable citations today: “Rev.” and “C.S.” for example. “Rev.” stands for the Revisal of 1905 and “C.S.” stands for Consolidated Statutes (1919, 1924). I learned that from the Abbreviations page included in the printed LexisNexis statute volumes, near the start of each book. These names stand for what the code of statutes was called at the time. Since North Carolina started calling the code “General Statutes” in 1943, citations are represented by years.

The inquirer also made reference to “session laws” in their question. Each two-year period that the North Carolina General Assembly meets is called a session. For example, the most recent session was the 2019-2020 session. The 2021-2022 session is about to start. The legislature also holds occasional shorter sessions called special sessions. All of the laws created during a particular session are published in a group as “session laws.” Session laws can be found here on the General Assembly’s website. My courts colleagues here at the School of Government write about legislative changes each year, referring to the session law where a new law or amendment appears and to the General Statute that is added or amended, if the law does that. Session laws are a way to find particular legal enactments in a particular session. Not every law passed in a session is a General Statute. Session laws include acts that apply only in certain localities, appointments to offices, and budget and appropriation measures, among others. Laws in these latter categories are not added to the General Statutes.

For the burglary statute’s legislative history, the reference “1969 , c. 543, s. 1” refers to a law passed by the General Assembly in its 1969-70 session as chapter 543. As you can tell by the hyperlinks, both can be found easily and quickly on the General Assembly’s website. That’s the case for at least as far back as 1959. The “s. 1” refers to the particular section of the law where the change to the statute can be found. For G.S. 14-51, that’s section 1 of chapter 543 of the 1969-70 session laws.

Finding the text of pre General Statute statutes is a more daunting research task, best done with the help of a comprehensive law library or a law librarian. The North Carolina General Assembly and the North Carolina Legislative Library have excellent online resources to assist your research.

This post also gives me an opportunity to give a shout-out to Alex Hess, who has been a librarian at the School of Government since 1988. Alex helped me with some finer points in this post. He is an extraordinary legislative historian. Alex is retiring soon, and I and my colleagues have valued his assistance tremendously.

I hope this post helps you understand how to see a particular statute’s legislative history and interpret those numbers and letters in parentheses at the end of a statute.

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