Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Short-Lived Biennial Legislative Session System in Massachusetts

If you’re familiar with Massachusetts legislative research materials such as the Acts and Resolves, the Legislative Documents series, and the House and Senate Journals, you will notice one strange similarity among them: volumes are missing for the years 1940 and 1942.  Here’s why: During the 1918 session of the 1917 Constitutional Convention there was discussion among members of the MA General Court to change the election system from annual to biennial.  Some of the main supporting arguments were that biennial elections would save money all around and allow elected officials more time to fulfill the duties of their offices.  Others considered annual elections as “safeguards of the Republic.”  The legislature voted in favor of this amendment, and it was subsequently ratified by the people of the Commonwealth.  Holding biennial legislative sessions was considered a “logical corollary” to biennial elections, and many felt that a shift would filter out unnecessary legislation in an “over-legislated” state.  In 1938 an initiative petition for such sessions was approved by the legislature and ratified by the people as Amendment LXXII in the MA Constitution.

1939 was the first year the General Court began meeting every other year instead of annually (they met in 1939, 1941, and 1943).  In 1942 (for six days) and 1944 (for 15 days) they held two special sessions that resulted in a handful of acts and resolves on particular subjects that required urgent attention.  However, no session was held in 1940 and no legislation or other materials relating thereof was published during that year.  The biennial session system was short-lived and in 1945, after a referendum vote, the General Court abandoned biennial sessions and once again began convening annually.

Much of this information, as well an overall history of the Massachusetts General Court, can be found in the title Leading the Way: a History of the Massachusetts General Court, 1629-1980 by Cornelius Dalton, et al., which is available in the State Library.

Kaitlin Connolly
Reference Department