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.
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.
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:
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.
[Bills are not available in print at Georgetown Law Library.]
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.
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:
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.
The Virginia Code is available in print and electronic format:
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?
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.
To make sure you use the most current version of the law, make sure to follow the steps below to update the section.
Lexis & 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.
Use these sources to help find statutes on particular topics:
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.
Code of Virginia
[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)
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.
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: