Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Researching (not so) Uniform Laws

Justice Louis Brandeis, in his dissent in New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, wrote “It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”1

Not to disagree with Justice Brandeis, but sometimes it is just easier for everyone if every state has the same law on a topic. This is not an original idea - the Uniform Laws Commission (ULC), also known as the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws, is a 120-year-old group whose mission is to draft legislation on various topics meant to be adopted by every state.

The most famous Uniform Law, at least to law students, is probably the Uniform Commercial Code, or UCC.2 There are many others though, covering topics such as property, business organizations, family law, and probate.

The ULC provides a wealth of information about these Acts on its website. One of the most interesting features is the list of the completed Uniform Acts – there are more than 150. Note that “uniform” does not mean “universal.” Some of these acts have had little adoption, and some, like the Uniform Criminal-History Records Act (1986), have not been enacted by any state at all! The ULC provides information about which states have adopted an Act, and which ones are considering it, in the form of proposed legislation, in 2012. They also provide a summary of each Act, as well as the full text of most. The main exception is the UCC, for which the ULC does not have the exclusive copyright. Final versions of the Uniform Acts can also be found in the set Uniform Laws Annotated, which is in print in the Law Library and on Westlaw. The annotations in this set make it a must-use resource when doing research on any Uniform Law. This source also details code sections where states adopted text that varied from the Uniform Law.

The ULC’s archives are housed at Biddle Law Library at the University of Pennsylvania. Researchers looking for older drafts of various uniform laws can find many of them online on the archive’s website. HeinOnline has even more material digitized in its National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws library (subscription required). It has the drafts of more Acts than the free archive, and it also has some memoranda by the drafters written during the drafting process.

The next time you are doing some research on an issue covered by a state statute, don’t forget that it could be based on a Uniform Law. If it is, you will find more history, and more jurisdictions interpreting the same statutory language, than you may have thought even existed.


1New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, 285 U.S. 262, 311 (1932).
2The UCC is a joint effort between the ULC and the American Law Institute. The American Law Institute publishes the various Restatements of the Law and the Model Penal Code.

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