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United States: The Legal Process

This page traces the process by which a bill becomes a law in the United States. The process begins with the bill's introduction in Congress and ends with its interpretation by the federal court system. Print sources and links to Internet sources for documents produced in each step of the process are provided.

The Superintendent of Documents (SuDoc) call number for print sources is given. These documents are available in the Lone Star College-North Harris Library Government Documents collection or in any Federal Depository Library collection. Check the library's online catalog to determine if a document is in paper, microfiche, or electronic format. Several of the publications cited here are available in the library's Reference Collection. These items have REF at the beginning of the call number.

Bill:
Action - Members of the House or Senate introduce bills for consideration by the Congress. The President, a member of the Cabinet or head of a Federal agency can also propose legislation.

Congressional Committee:
Action - A Bill is debated on the floor and then sent to committee for revisions. Hearings are held and reports are issued containing the revised bill, committee's recommendations and background information. Once revised, a bill is brought again before the House or Senate for approval. The bill may then be referred to a conference committee to reconcile differences in similar bills in both Chambers. Conference committees are composed of members of both the Senate and the House.

  • Print Version - House & Senate Committee Hearings: Y4.:
    Senate Documents: Y1.1/3:
    Senate Reports: Y1.1/5:
    House Documents: Y1.1/7:
    House Reports: Y1.1/8:
  • Internet Version -
    Senate, House & Executive Reports Selected reports from the 104th to 111th Congress. (GPO Access)
    Committee Reports Reports from the 104th to 111th Congress as well as selected committee transcripts. (THOMAS)
    House and Senate Committee home pages are additional sources of legislative information.
    Senate Bibliographies Comprehensive index to Senate prints, hearings, and publications from 1983. (North Carolina State University)

Floor of Congress:
Action - Revised bill is brought before the House and Senate for approval.

Congressional Vote:
Action - Members of both Chambers vote on the final version of the bill.

President:
Action - A bill approved by both House & Senate is sent to the President. The President may comment on the bill and then sign or veto it. If he signs it, the bill becomes law. If he vetoes it, it may go back to Congress for redrafting or Congress may override the veto with 2/3rds majority vote in both Houses. If the President does not return the bill to Congress with his objections within 10 days, the bill automatically becomes a law. If Congress adjourns before the 10 day period, the bill is vetoed. (pocket veto)

  • Print Version - Federal Register: AE2.106:
    Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents: AE2.109:
    Public Papers of the Presidents: AE1.114:
  • Internet Version -
    Federal Register
          Presidential documents and Executive Orders since 1994. (GPO Access)
    Executive Orders Disposition Tables
          Provides information about executive orders from January 9, 1939 to present.

Laws:
Action - Once signed by the President, laws are given public law numbers and issued in printed form first as slip laws. These Public Laws are then bound into the Statutes at Large. Every six years, Public Laws are incorporated into the U.S. Code. Public Laws update the U.S. Code.

Executive Agencies:
Action - Executive agencies draft detailed regulations which specify how the laws are to be carried out. New and proposed regulations are announced in the Federal Register. Regulations are bound into the Code of Federal Regulations which is a subject arrangement of regulations in force.

  • Print Version - Federal Register: AE2.106:
    Code of Federal Regulations: AE2.106/3:
  • Internet Version -
    Federal Register
          From 1994 to present. (GPO Access)
    Code of Federal Regulations.
    (National Archives & Records Administration)

Judicial Review:
Action - Supreme Court and Federal Circuit Courts of Appeal interpret laws & regulations when they become an issue in a case.

  • Print Version - Slip Opinions: JU6.8/B:
    U.S. Reports: JU6.8:
    South Western Reporter (2nd Series): REF KFT 1257.W477
  • Internet Version -
    Supreme Court of the United States
          Hosted by the Government Printing Office, this site will provide access to the Court's 1999 slip opinions, orders, argument calendar, schedules, press releases, and general information. 
    FindLaw
          Supreme Court decisions from 1906.
    United States Supreme Court Flite Database Archive
          Archive of historic Supreme Court decisions from 1937-1975 (FedWorld). 
    Federal Court Locator
          Supreme Court and Federal Circuit Courts of Appeal decisions. (Villanova Internet Legal Research Compass)
    Federal Courts Finder
          Access Supreme Court and Federal Circuit Courts. (Macmillan Law Library, Emory School of Law

Additional Information about the Legislative Process:
The following sites offer additional information about the legislative process:

  • How A Bill Becomes a Law Compiled byProject Vote Smart
  • How Our Laws Are Made  originally created by Charles Johnson, House of Representatives Parliamentarian, this document describes the steps of the legal process and the documents produced along the way. Formatting of document provided by THOMAS.
  • Legislative Research Maintained by Michael Seadle at the University of Michigan Documents Center, a web-based tutorial for legislative research.

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