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Georgetown Law Library

Virginia Research In-Depth

This State Guide provides an in-depth look at sources of law within Virginia.

Statutory Law

This section on statutory law covers the legislative body, the process of how a bill becomes law, how laws are published and compiled, and instructions on legislative history.

A. Legislation

The Virginia General Assembly, Virginia's legislative body, claims to be the "oldest continuous law-making body in the New World." The General Assembly's chief responsibilities are to represent citizens in the formulation of public policy, enact laws of the Commonwealth, approve the budget, levy taxes, elect judges and confirm appointments by the Governor. The General Assembly is a bicameral legislature, and consists of the House of Delegates and Senate of Virginia. The House of Delegates has 90 to 100 members, and the Senate has 33 to 40 members, all of whom are elected by qualified voters within their respective House and Senate districts. The terms of office are two years for members of the House and four years for members of the Senate. There is no limit to the number of terms that can be served.

1. LEGISLATIVE PROCESS

Legislative Sessions. Legislative sessions convene on the second Wednesday in January each year. In even-numbered years, the session length is 60 days; in odd-numbered years it is 30 days. The session may be extended by a 2/3 majority vote in both houses. Both the governor and the General Assembly (with 2/3 majority vote in both houses) can call for a special session. The General Assembly reconvenes six weeks after adjournment to consider the Governor's actions on bills.

Introduction of Bills. A Delegate or Senator presents an idea for a bill to the Division of Legislative Services, which checks existing law and the constitutionality of the proposal, drafts the bill, and gives it to the member for introduction. The bill is signed by the patron, introduced, and printed. In the House of Delegates, the Clerk assigns a number for each bill and sends the legislation to the Speaker of the House. The Speaker refers the bill to a committee. In the Senate, the bill is assigned a number by the Clerk, who refers it to a committee.

Committee Stage. Once the bill is referred to the appropriate committee, the committee members consider the bill and decide what action to take. Any citizen of the Commonwealth has the right to attend a committee meeting and speak about legislation. After the committee hears the patron and any other witnesses, the committee has several options when the chairman calls for a vote:

  1. Report: The majority of the committee approves of the bill and it is reported to the floor or referred to another committee.
  2. Pass by Indefinitely (PBI): This action allows the committee to reconsider the legislation prior to the deadline established by the procedural resolution that sets the schedule for consideration of bills.
  3. Defeat: The committee rejects a motion to report the bill, and there is no further action by the committee.
  4. Continue/Carry Over: A bill introduced in an even-numbered year session may be continued or carried over to an odd-numbered year session for further action or study during the interim. A carry-over bill retains its assigned bill number in the odd-numbered year session. A bill may not be continued or carried over from an odd-numbered year session to an even-numbered year session.
  5. Pass by for the day: The committee is not ready to act on the bill. If the bill is not taken up before the deadline, then it is considered Left in Committee or No Action Taken.
  6. No Action or Left in Committee: No motion is made on the bill and it dies at the time of the committee action deadline.
  7. Incorporate into other Legislation: The bill is incorporated, or included into another bill through an amendment or a substitute. The bill may have similar language or duplicate language with the same intent.

Readings: For bills that are reported to the floor, the title of each bill must be read three times or appear in the printed Calendar on three different days. Legislation reported from the Committees appears on the Calendar under the category of Senate Bills on First Reading in the Senate, House Bills on First Reading in the House of Delegates, etc. The second reading is referred to as the "amendable state," and committee amendments, floor amendments and floor substitutes are considered. The legislators vote on any amendments or substitutes, and then on whether to engross the bill and send it to its third reading. Engrossing means incorporating any amendment(s) which may have been adopted by the body. If a bill fails to be engrossed and advanced to its third reading, the bill is defeated. Upon passage of legislation, bills and the action taken regarding them are communicated to the other body.

Bicameral Procedures. Each body of the General Assembly is required to pass legislation in exactly the same form before it can be sent to the Governor to become law. House legislation, when first received by the Senate after passage in the House of Delegates, receives its first reading and is referred to the appropriate Senate committee. Likewise, Senate legislation, when received by the House of Delegates after passage in the Senate, receives its first reading and is referred to the appropriate House committee. Legislation of the other body, i.e. House bills in the Senate or Senate bills in the House of Delegates, is not considered amendable on second reading. This legislation, having been reported from a committee, is listed in the Calendar the next day. Committee amendments are not shown in the Calendar until the legislation is on its third reading. Debate on amendment(s) to legislation of the other body takes place on third reading.

If the other body passes the bill without amendment(s), it is enrolled (passed by both houses in the same form) and communicated to the Governor. If a Senate bill is passed by the House of Delegates with amendment(s) or with a substitute, the bill and the changes must be communicated to the Senate, so that the Senate will be in a position to consider the changes proposed by the House. If the Senate agrees to the changes proposed by the House, the bill, with the changes, is enrolled and sent to the Governor. If the Senate does not agree to the changes, a Committee of Conference may be formed to resolve the differences between the House and the Senate. If a Committee of Conference is not formed, the bill fails to pass. Each Committee of Conference consists of an equal number of Senators and Delegates. If an agreement is reached, the terms of the agreement are reported to each body. If each house agrees to the report, the changes agreed to in the Committee of Conference are incorporated into the bill and the "compromise" bill is enrolled [definition: a bill that has been passed by both houses] and sent to the Governor. If the Committee of Conference cannot agree or the report is rejected by either body, the bill dies.

Governor. For any bill presented, the Governor may sign, veto, or offer amendments. The Governor may also veto one or more items if the bill is an appropriation bill. If the Governor does not act on a bill, it becomes law without his signature in seven days. If there are fewer than seven days remaining in the General Assembly session, or if the General Assembly has adjourned, the Governor has thirty days after adjournment to act on bills. If the Governor recommends amendments to or vetoes a bill, and the General Assembly is still in session, the General Assembly can consider the Governor's action. The General Assembly can override the Governor's veto with a two-third majority vote from both houses.

Where to find BILLS and BILL INFORMATION?

[Bills are not available in print at Georgetown Law Library.]

2. SESSION LAWS

At the conclusion of each session of the General Assembly, all newly-passed statutes are compiled in session law services. The laws are compiled in chronological order, and assigned consecutive chapter numbers in the order of passage. All print services contain the official language of all Virginia laws, and include indexes to new acts by subject and code provision affected.

Where to find ACTS and LAWS?

3. Codes and Statutes

After their initial chronological publication, all laws of a general nature passed by the General Assembly are compiled by subject in The Code of Virginia, 1950.

The two Virginia Code publications are:

  • The Code of Virginia, 1950, published by LexisNexis, is the official version of The Code. Even though the title indicates that The Code is out-of-date, it is updated with annual pocket parts, and with paperback supplements issued three times a year (these are entitled Advance Code Service, and should not be confused with the Advance Legislative Service published at the end of each General Assembly session). Entire volumes of the multi-volume set are periodically updated and replaced.
  • West's Annotated Code of Virginia is the unofficial version of the Virginia Code. The text and organization are the same as the official code. However, the annotations and finding aids are different. This Code version was first published in 2001, and includes some advantages such as West key number annotations and a modern index. It is updated with annual pocket parts and a semiannual Interim Annotation Service.

In both versions of The Code, the text of the statute is followed by a brief legislative history of the law. There are also cross-references to related statutes and Rules of Court, and annotations containing references to case law, law review articles and other secondary sources.

Where to find the Virginia CODE?

The Virginia Code is available in print and electronic format:

4. FINDING THE LAW THAT COVERS YOUR LEGAL ISSUE

Now that you know how bills are enacted and how laws are published and compiled, how do you go about finding the law on a particular topic?

Finding the Sections:

Begin your search for current Virginia law using the Code of Virginia 1950 or the West's Annotated Code of Virginia. See the gray box below for the location of the sources mentioned.

  • Indexes. In both versions there is an annual index at the end of the set. Search for key terms using the West's Code index; the index to the Code of Virginia uses terms derived directly from the language in the statute and is therefore less helpful to users. You may also search an electronic version of the index in Westlaw by going to the Virginia Statutes & Court Rules database and clicking "Virginia Statutes Index" under "Tools & Resources" on the right.
  • Table of Contents. If you prefer to browse, use the table of contents for the Virginia Code. All versions of The Code have a table of contents.
  • Popular Name Table: Use a Popular Name Table to look up Virginia statutes by popular name. See "Virginia Code Find Aids" below for locations.
  • Secondary Sources. Use Michie's Jurisprudence of Virginia and West Virginia: A Complete Treatise of Virginia and West Virginia Law, KFV2465 .M4, to research Virginia statutory law.Michie's is a legal encyclopedia.
Updating your Sections: Online

To make sure you use the most current version of the law, make sure to follow the steps below to update the section.

Free Web

  • Most newly enacted Virginia legislation takes effect on July 1 after the session in which it is enacted. Newly enacted amendments to statutes are not incorporated into the Code of Virginia web site until after they become effective. If you will be giving forward-looking advice on the basis of laws found at the Code of Virginia web site, it is therefore advisable to search for recently enacted session laws that may affect your statute.
    1. From the The Virginia General Assembly Legislative Information Service web site, select the appropriate legislative session. Select "Bills and Resolutions" under "Searchable Databases" in the left-hand column.
    2. Search for the code section you are updating ‹ for example, if you are updating Code Section 5.1-26, enter "5.1-26" in the search form. Select "chapter" from the pull-down menu.
    3. If the search returns any results, scan the results (each hit is a chapter law) to see how your code section is affected. [Select "show hits," to highlight your search term in the text of the law.]

Lexis & Westlaw

  • Lexis: Legislative changes are incorporated into the Code language immediately after their effective date. However, a statute section with a recent amendment that has not yet become effective will be indicated by a Shepard's "Legislative Alert Service" signal showing "Acts Affecting this Document."
  • Westlaw: The following instructions are provided by Westlaw:

    1) Use KEYCITE whenever the message "Use KEYCITE" appears [or when a yellow or red symbol is displayed] to retrieve laws or orders which amend or repeal the document, and

    2) Search for your subject matter in Virginia Enacted Legislation (Session Laws) to retrieve (i) slip copy documents which amend or repeal documents in your search result and (ii) any additional relevant materials, which may include new statutes or rules, local or special laws, and uncodified materials.

Updating your Sections: In the Books
  1. Check the annual pocket part in the back of the volume you are reading. This will contain changes to the code that have occurred since the hardbound volume was printed. Sometimes, instead of a pocket part, supplementation will be in the form of a separate, paperback volume. If you cannot find your section in the pocket part, that means your section has not been changed between the time of the publication of the main volume and the time of the publication of the pocket part.
  2. Next check the Virginia Advance Legislative Service or West's Virginia Legislative Service to see if the General Assembly has passed any bills affecting your law since the publication of the pocket part (Note: the legislative session begins in January every year, and ends by July 1.)
  3. Use the latest volume of the Service for the relevant legislative session and use the Table of Sections Affected or Code Sections Affected to see if the code section is listed. If it is listed, a newly-passed law affects your statute. Check the table for the law's bill number and look up the new language.
  4. Note that most Virginia laws take effect on July 1, so updating in the books does not fall too far behind updating electronically. Generally however, electronic updating methods are preferable to print updating methods because of the currency of information.
Virginia Code Finding Aids

Use these sources to help find statutes on particular topics:

B. Legislative History

There is no official legislative history information in Virginia, so the documents and resources that will help to establish legislative intent are varied. Make sure you have the law's bill number and chapter number before you start on a history. Then, refer to the sources listed below to gather as much information as you can.

AVAILABLE IN THE LIBRARY OR ONLINE:

Code of Virginia

  • Annotations. The text of each statute is followed by parenthetical information about its history. For code provisions enacted or amended since 1950, the note refers to the appropriate volume and chapter of the Acts of the General Assembly, and to earlier code citations if a particular title has been recodified. For code provisions already in effect in 1950, the note refers to an earlier edition of the code.
  • Superseded Codes.
    • All superseded Virginia Codes are available in the Williams Library in the Superseded Law Collection, Special Collections or microfiche.
  • Westlaw
  • Lexis: Retrieve the current code section from VA - Code of Virginia, then click "Archived code versions" under "About This Document" on the right side of the screen.
  • HeinOnline: Historical Statutes

Session Laws

Bills

[Bills are not available in print at Georgetown Law Library.]

Reports to the General Assembly - Reports mandated by the Code of Virginia (selective from 1940; link to pdf where available)

Newspapers

ITEMS NOT AVAILABLE IN THE GU LAW LIBRARY:

Special Studies. The House or Senate will sometimes order committees to prepare studies of topics important to the Assembly. A chronological list of House and Senate Documents from 1897 is available online. Only a few select newer reports are available in full text online. The reports from these studies are compiled in a set entitled House & Senate Documents which is not available in our library. However, reports can be requested using Interlibrary Loan, or by contacting the Legislative Bill Room, first floor of the Pocahontas Building just south of the Capitol Building in Richmond, Virginia, (804) 786-6984.

Floor Debates. There are no paper records of the proceedings of the General Assembly. Instead, there are videotapes available for viewing at the offices of the General Assembly in Richmond. House debates are available from the 1980's to the present, and Senate debates are available for the past six months. You must call ahead to make sure the tapes are available, and you must know the dates of the proceedings you want to see. Contact the House Journal Clerk's office at 804-698-1530 or the Senate Clerk's office at 804-698-7400.

More Information

Research guides of the University of Virginia Law Library and the College of William and Mary Law Library all have very good information on legislative history. Each contains a different perspective on the process and each is worth reading.

Also, the two Virginia legal research guides available here in the library have excellent sections on legislative history:

  • A Guide to Legal Research in Virginia, 8th ed., 2017, KFV2475 .G85 2017.
  • Legal Research in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia, 2d ed., 2000, KF240 .C43 2000.