Wednesday, November 13, 2013

An Act By Any Other Name: General vs. Special Acts

Patrons often contact the State Library wanting to know the difference between an act that is general in nature, and what is commonly called a “special act” (or “special law”).  Massachusetts acts are made up of both types, and it’s easy to be confused by this concept since they are published together in no particular order other than that in which they were passed during a specific year; however, prior to 1920, you will find that they were published in separate volumes.  It’s important to be able to recognize the difference between the two, as research methods can vary depending on the type in question.  Also note that the Massachusetts Acts and Resolves are commonly known under the umbrella term “session laws”, and you may see this term used throughout your research.

An act that is general in nature will most often apply to all Massachusetts residents (for example, laws regarding divorce in the state), or it may involve the organization and administration of the state government (for example, the state budget).  Also keep in mind that general acts are passed with the intent of permanence.  This type of act makes up the majority of the acts passed, and together they form the body of the Massachusetts General Laws (MGL) and all of its additions, amendments, repeals, etc. that the MGL has undergone since its codification.  In other words, each general act is codified into the MGL.  The MGL, like most existing bodies of law, is mutable and subject to continual changes that are effected by these general acts.

“Special acts” are acts that are more specific in nature.  They apply to a limited number, such as one person, one event, a specific city or town, etc.  Like general acts, they are subject to amendments brought about by subsequent acts; however they are not codified into any body of law.

A good way to distinguish between the two types of acts is to take a look at the language used and the subject matter at hand.  Good questions to ask are: What is the scope of the subject matter?  Is it specific, or does it apply to the Massachusetts community as a whole?  Does it affect the organization or administration of the state government?  Is it meant to be temporary?  Key language usually appears in the first couple sentences of the act.  Does it specifically state that the act is an amendment or insertion being applied to the General Laws?  If so, then it is a general act.  If you’re still not sure, Shephard’s Citations, which is available in the library, is a good resource to look at because it distinguishes between acts codified and not codified.

To make matters more complicated, sometimes an act can have both.  A great example of this is 1993 Chap. 71, a huge act concerning educational reform.  Many of the sections are general acts with references to the MGL, but look at section 70; section 70 is not codified in the MGL and is considered a “special” part of this act.

Special Act:  2009 Chap. 201. An Act Designating A Certain Traffic Circle In The City Of Lowell As The Micky Ward Rotary.

General Act:  1980 Chap. 63. An Act Establishing Town Meeting Day.

The State Library has digitized all of the acts from 1692 to 2009; later acts can be found on the legislature’s website.

Kaitlin Connolly
Reference Dept.