In this post I explain why “Subsequent or Prior Unrelated, but Conflicting Legislation” ranks 20th on my list of the “Top 21 Sources of Legislative History.” Click here for a brief overview of the basis for these rankings.
20. Subsequent or Prior Unrelated, but Conflicting Legislation: This source of legislative history is primarily relevant where a litigant claims that its efforts to comply with one statute resulted in the violation of another statute. In other words, the litigant is arguing that a conflict exists between the statute that it allegedly violated and a prior- or subsequently-enacted statute. In the finite number of cases where this argument is relevant (hence, its low ranking), courts may look to the legislative intent behind the conflicting legislation to determine whether Congress, in crafting the more-recent Act’s language, intended to pursue a policy interest at odds with its former law.
In addition to the miniscule number of cases in which courts must determine whether unrelated legislation is relevant to its interpretation of a statute, I have ranked this source 20th out of 21 because courts are more likely to attribute such conflict to inadvertent error rather than legislative design. With frequent turnover in Congress, and an estimated +4,000 federal crimes in the U.S. Penal Code alone, it’s not hard to fathom the Legislature enacting a law that inadvertently treads on older legislation. As a result, courts recognize “a strong presumption against one statute repealing or amending another by implication.”
I have ranked “Subsequent or Prior Unrelated, but Conflicting Legislation” higher than “Recorded Votes” because courts have consulted the legislative history of the former in a few notable cases, whereas the latter has received almost no attention from courts. One such notable case involved a prisoner—having otherwise accumulated enough “good-behavior-time credits” to purchase his early release if not for the prison’s decision to cancel his credits—who wished to challenge the fairness of his confinement in federal court.
The prisoner attempted to bring his challenge directly into federal court under the broad language of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 rather than exhaust the remedies available to him at the state level first, which would have allowed him to bypass the prolonged appeals process that would accompany his case if brought in state court. Although the Supreme Court conceded that § 1983 “seem[ed] literally to apply” to the prisoner’s case, it rejected the prisoner’s use of the statute as an end-run around the state court system because such a result would conflict with Congress’s more-specific habeas corpus laws requiring prisoners to exhaust “state remedies as a condition precedent to the invocation of federal judicial relief.” To avoid interpreting § 1983 in a manner that would undermine (i.e., conflict with) Congress’s legislative purpose behind its narrower habeas corpus laws, the Court relied on the legislative history of a seemingly unrelated piece of legislation (i.e., federal habeas corpus laws) to decide that § 1983 should not be read literally in the prisoner’s case.
In the rare instances where courts find that Congress intentionally enacted two unrelated statutes to advance conflicting policies, courts may rely on several canons of construction to reconcile the conflict. The National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws crystallized these canons into the following model statute:
SECTION 10: IRRECONCILABLE STATUTES OR RULES.
(a) If the statutes appear to conflict, they must be construed, if possible, to give effect to each. If the conflict is irreconcilable, the later enacted statute governs. However, an earlier enacted specific, special, or local statute prevails over a later enacted general statute unless the context of the later enacted statute indicates otherwise.
(b) If an administrative agency’s rules appear to conflict, they must be construed, if possible, to give effect to each. If the conflict is irreconcilable, the later adopted rule governs. However, an earlier adopted specific, special, or local rule prevails over a later adopted general rule unless the context of the later adopted rule indicates otherwise.
(c) If a statute is a comprehensive revision of the law on a subject, it prevails over previous statutes on the subject, whether or not the revision and the previous statutes conflict irreconcilably.
(d) If a rule is a comprehensive revision of the rules on the subject, it prevails over previous rules on the subject, whether or not the revision and the previous rules conflict irreconcilably.
The following lists the “Top 21 Sources of Legislative History” (1 = most important; 21 = least important):
- Conference Committee Reports
- Committee Debates and Bill Mark-ups
- Committee Reports
- The Status of the Person Speaking—Sponsor, Committee Chairman, Floor Leader, Etc.
- Accepted and Rejected Amendments
- Floor Debates
- Planned Colloquy
- Transcripts of Discussions at Committee Hearing
- Prepared Statements on Submission of a Bill, in Committee Hearings, and at the Time of Floor Debates
- Revised and Amended Statements
- Actions on and Discussions About Separate Bills on the Same Topic
- Prior Relevant Administrative Action or Judicial Decisions, with or without Congressional Acknowledgement
- Executive Branch Messages and Proposals Whether from the President, Cabinet Secretaries, or from Independent Agencies
- Analysis of Bills by Legislative Counsel
- Analysis of Bills by Relevant Executive Departments
- Related Statutes, Provisions, and Terms (click here)
- Dictionaries (click here)
- Statements by Relevant Executive Branch Administrators (click here)
- Statements and Submissions by Lobbyists (click here)
- Subsequent or Prior Unrelated, but Conflicting Legislation
- Recorded Votes (click here)
 See Julie R. O’Sullivan, The Federal Criminal “Code” is a Disgrace: Obstruction Statutes as Case Study, 96 J. Crim. L. & Criminology 643, 648–49 (2006).