Bills Are Not a Changelog: Why You Can’t Turn Legislation Into Laws

    by Waldo Jaquith
    April 6, 2012

    There is a common belief that since laws are the result of legislation, then surely one can automatically assemble an amended version of the code based on the bills that have passed the legislature. This is both a really cool idea and a wrong one.

    Your standard narrative of how a bill becomes law doesn’t really cover what it purports to cover. Usually what’s really being explained is how a bill passes, but not how it becomes law. There’s a whole process between the passage of a bill and the encoding of that bill in a state’s codified laws.



    Legislatures pass hundreds or thousands of bills every year, some of which are budgetary, some of which are to define their own rules, some of which pertain to state administration, and some of which are resolutions. The remainder are patches to be applied to law, either proposing a new section or amending an existing one (by either adding or removing material). These patches look familiar to anybody who has seen a prettied-up diff, and it’s wholly logical to figure that amending the state’s laws should simply mean collecting all of the bills that pass and applying those patches to the laws.

    The trouble is that these patches are not always the last word on the changes that are going to be made to existing law.

    human filters

    Virginia is the state in which I have the most knowledge of this process, so I’ll provide a few words about my state’s process. The Virginia Code Commission is a tiny state agency, with just seven employees who are charged with overseeing the code. Their duties are spelled out in Title 30 (General Assembly), Chapter 15 (Virginia Code Commission) of the state code, but the interesting bit is § 30-149 (Authority for minor changes to the Code of Virginia):


    The Commission may correct unmistakable printer’s errors, misspellings and other unmistakable errors in the statutes as incorporated into the Code of Virginia, and may make consequential changes in the titles of officers and agencies, and other purely consequential changes made necessary by the use in the statutes of titles, terminology and references, or other language no longer appropriate.

    The Commission may renumber, rename, and rearrange any Code of Virginia titles, chapters, articles, and sections in the statutes adopted, and make corresponding changes in lists of chapter, article, and section headings, catchlines, and tables, when, in the judgment of the Commission, it is necessary because of any disturbance or interruption of orderly or consecutive arrangement.

    The Commission may correct unmistakable errors in cross-references to Code of Virginia sections and may change cross-references to Code of Virginia sections which have become outdated or incorrect due to subsequent amendment to, revision, or repeal of the sections to which reference is made.

    The Commission may omit from the statutes incorporated into the Code of Virginia provisions which, in the judgment of the Commission, are inappropriate in a code, such as emergency clauses, clauses providing for specific nonrecurring appropriations and general repealing clauses.

    It is not unusual for the legislature to amend a bill at the very last minute, without proper review. From the marked-up format of a bill (words crossed out, others inserted) what can emerge is grammatically incorrect or even contains logical errors. It’s surely a judgment call whether such problems can be fixed by the Virginia Code Commission or whether it will require the General Assembly to fix them, which may well require a delay of nearly a year.

    Here, for instance, is a selection of the 35 changes made to the Code of Virginia by Code Commission staff since the 2011 edition was published:


    Section Correction Date
    2.2-311 Catchline, after “authority of” change “investigation” to “investigators” 12/1/2011
    2.2-515.1 Second sentence, after “responsibility to” add “(i) establish an address confidentiality program in accordance with § 2.2-515.2, (ii)” and change “programs and shall report” to read “programs, and (iii) report” 10/25/2011
    2.2-2338 In first paragraph, (i) change “13 voting members” to “12 voting members”; (ii) insert “and” after “Commerce and Trade,”; and (iii) delete “and the Assistant to the Governor for Commonwealth Preparedness” 8/5/2011
    2.2-2699.5 Subsection B, replace “Assistant to the Governor for Commonwealth Preparedness” with “Secretary of Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security” 8/5/2011
    2.2-4509 Change “AA by Moody’s” to “Aa by Moody’s” 10/25/2011
    6.2-314 End of catchline, change “institution” to “institutions” 10/25/2011
    6.2-412 End of catchline, change “improvement” to “improvements” 10/25/2011

    In Virginia — as in other states, although I don’t yet know how many — an attempt to use legislation as a changelog for the state code would yield results that would be very convincing-looking, but that would deviate substantially from the official code. Bills must frequently pass through a human filter before they become laws. That’s not something that you can simulate with a Ruby gem or a PEAR package.

    Some things just require some thought — in ways that can’t yet be automated.

    Image courtesy of Flickr user marsmet523.

    Tagged: bills changelog code law legislation patches state decoded virginia

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