Reading: How to Read a Statute


Statutes are the laws of a state as enacted by the legislature and approved by, or allowed to take effect without approval of, the governor. Bills, the legislative documents used to pass or amend laws, are read in the context of existing statutes. Understanding existing law and how it is affected by a bill is fundamental to reading and understanding a bill. With a basic understanding of how to read the statutes, you will be better prepared to read and understand a bill.

Each bill passed by the legislature and not vetoed by the governor becomes effective according to the terms outlined in the bill or general effective date provisions in the state constitution. Once effective, the text of the bill becomes law. Such law can be found in the 27 codes that are organized by topic, Vernon’s Texas Civil Statutes, or the session laws.

Texas has revised its statutes four times: 1879, 1895, 1911, and 1925. The 1925 revision organized the statutes into a unified code. Each statute was titled and assigned a sequence article number that corresponded with its alphabetized title. This organization was published and bound in black volumes known as Vernon’s Texas Civil Statutes by the same third-party publisher used today—West.

Subsequent additions to the law were incorporated into the organization established in 1925. To maintain the integrity of the statutes’ numerical and alphabetical organization, West often added letters to the end of article designations for new laws relating to the same subject matter.

Before long the statutes had become unwieldy and illogical in their numbering and organization. In 1963, the legislature charged the Texas Legislative Council with conducting an ongoing nonsubstantive revision of the 1925 statutes. Under the revision program, the statutes are arranged into topical codes (e.g., Family Code or Health and Safety Code) and numbered using a system that accommodates future expansion of the law. In addition, the revision eliminates repealed, invalid, and duplicative provisions. The few 1925 statutes that have not been incorporated into a code may be found in Vernon’s Texas Civil Statutes.

In contrast, certain bills enact new law without reference to a code or civil statute section. These laws can be found only in the session law volumes, which are published and bound by West as the General and Special Laws. After a bill is signed by the governor or the governor allows the bill to become law without a signature, it is assigned a chapter number that corresponds with the order in which the bill is fi led with the secretary of state. The session law volumes are organized by chapter number. This chapter designation is often used to identify a specific bill from a specific session, such as Chapter 981 (H.B. 1125), Acts of the 74th Legislature, Regular Session, 1995. However, most bills amend codes or the uncodified civil statutes, and the changes they make are incorporated into the appropriate code or Vernon’s Texas Civil Statutes.

West publishes the printed sources for the statutes—the Vernon’s Texas Civil Statutes (for those laws yet to be codified) and the Vernon’s Texas Codes Annotated. The Vernon’s volumes contain pocket parts, which are temporary additions to each volume that reflect changes in the statutes that have occurred since the hardbound volume was last published. Pocket parts are found in the back of the appropriate hardbound volume. The statutes are most easily accessed online via the Texas Constitution and Statutes website, which is maintained by Texas Legislative Council staff and regularly updated and corrected.

How Codes and Statutes Are Organized

How to Read a Statute

Many statutes are straighƞ orward and easily understood. Others are complicated and difficult to comprehend. Often the difficulty is because of the way the statute is constructed rather than because of the complexity of the subject matter. Long, complex sentences, numerous cross-references, dependent subdivisions, and phrases that except application of the statute can make the meaning difficult to follow.

Below are a few tips to help you when you first read a statute. Develop a habit of reading each statute at least three times. First, read it straight through without stopping. Then read it more carefully, using the following techniques to aid in your understanding. Finally, read it straight through once more.

  • Check for the context of the statute. Think of the statute as a unit of law that is part of a series of units of law and scan the table of contents to see what sections precede and follow the section you are reading. If there is a short title section (usually at the beginning of the chapter or subchapter), read it.
  • Look for a definitions section (if present, it is usually found at the beginning of a chapter or subchapter) and read it. Make sure you understand references to general terms like “department,” “agency,” or “executive director.” A definition may be used in the statutes to avoid repetition of a long term, for example, using the term “department” to refer to the Department of State Health Services. Other sources for existing definitions are the Code Construction Act (Chapter 311, Government Code), which applies to all codes enacted as part of the legislature’s statutory revision program; Chapter 312, Government Code, which applies to civil statutes generally; and SecƟ on 1.07, Penal Code, which is among several provisions of that code that apply to penal laws generally.
  • Read the complete heading (code/title/chapter/subchapter/section) to establish how the section fits into the entire code’s organization.
  • Pay close attention to the statute’s format and organization. Look for breaks in the text. Assume everything in the statute has meaning, including punctuation and format.
  • Look for keywords:
    • important “action” words such as “may,” “shall,” or “must” that establish whether a provision requires or authorizes some action or condition;
    • exceptions to the application of the statute, signaled by keywords such as “only,” “under,” “over,” “more than,” “less than,” “if,” and “unless”; or
    • a series ending in “and” or “or” that indicates whether all the elements of the series are included or only one of the elements needs to be included to satisfy the series.
  • Do not skip over words that you do not know or fully understand. Do not rely on context for the meaning of a word about which you are unsure. Do not assume a word (e.g., “person”) has the same meaning that it has in everyday conversation.
  • Read through cross-referenced sections in their entirety. If a cross-reference is to an entire chapter or subchapter, read through the chapter’s or subchapter’s table of contents and definitions section to learn the context. In the following example, without reading the cross-referenced Section 93.011, the reader will not know the circumstances under which the savings bank has closed.