Legalese and Finding the Law
Types of State Law
officials are bound by state law. That includes not
just (a) the written laws (statutes) passed by the
legislature, but also (b) the New Hampshire Constitution,
(c) administrative regulations enacted by state agencies
under authority from the legislature, and (d) the
"common law," which is the set of legal principles
developed and explained by the courts in their written
opinions (usually referred to as "case law"). Keep
in mind that the court system is an equal branch of
government, and is just as powerful within its domain
of interpreting law as the legislature is in
its power to make laws. Thus, "common law" (court
case law) is just as legal and binding on the town
and its officials as statutes are.
statutes of New Hampshire, as passed by the legislature,
are collected in the Revised
Statutes Annotated, now
issued by West as the official publisher, and also
by Lexis Publishers (formerly Michie). They are
referred to as either statutes or "RSAs" for short.
The RSAs are arranged by title, chapter and section.
They are cited with the chapter number separated from
the section number by a colon. For example, a citation
to "RSA 31:39," refers to RSA Chapter 31, section
a section of the RSAs is divided into subsections,
paragraphs, and even subparagraphs. In written citations,
paragraph numbers are separated from the section number
with a comma. So, for example, RSA 676:4, 1(g) means
Chapter 676, section 4, subsection I, paragraph (g).
(This happens to be the law authorizing a planning
board to charge administrative fees to a developer.)
the legislature enacts a new chapter of the statutes
that belongs between two existing chapters, or a section
that belongs between two other sections, a letter
suffix is used. For example, RSA Chapter 36-A is a
completely different chapter than Chapter 36, but
it falls right after it, and before Chapter 37. Similarly,
RSA 31:39-a is a separate, distinct, section that
comes after RSA 3 1:39.
state legislature has its own system for identifying
bills that are being reviewed in any given year. A
citation such as "HB 424," refers to a bill that has
originated in the House of Representatives. It is
a proposed law that has not been passed yet.
"SB 123" would represent a Senate Bill. Bills
are passed back and forth and reviewed by both the
House and Senate but keep their original reference
number for the entire session. Once a bill passes,
it gets a session law chapter number, such as "Laws
of 1992, Chapter 184." However, not all session laws
are necessarily the type that become statutes. Some
are enacted for specific places or situations, or
are otherwise non-statutory matters. Do not confuse
session law numbers with the RSAs. Session law chapter
numbers are chronological and are only of historical
interest. Shortly after those session laws that modify
the RSAs are "chaptered", they receive the
appropriate statutory designation in the RSAs. The
RSA numbers are the ones to use when citing state
research is not complete upon finding an RSA in the
bound volume. In order to find the most updated and
accurate version of law one must check that same citation
(statute number) in the "supplement" or "pocket part."
These supplements, reprinted every year, contain changes
the legislature has made since the hardbound book
was printed. The "pocket part" is a paper pamphlet,
usually stuck in the rear of the hardbound RSA book.
Sometimes the softbound booklet (with a white paper
cover) that follows the hardbound volume on the shelf.
This update is usually referred to as the "supplement."
If there's nothing in the supplement under the number
at issue, then the version in the hardbound book is
the current, correct one to use.
the text of each law as printed in the RSAs, there
often appears in smaller print one or more annotations.
These are summaries - not actual quotations
- of what the New Hampshire Supreme Court has written
in a court case opinion about the statute. The annotation
is not part of the statute itself. Do not rely on
the annotation; instead, use it to find the case to
which it refers.
other state laws that are binding on the town and
its officials are the regulations passed by state
administrative agencies (for example, the Division
of Waste Management in the Department of Environmental
Services, the Municipal Records Board, or the Current
Use Board). An administrative agency cannot enact
regulations in any field unless the legislature has
passed a law allowing it. To get a copy of an agency's
regulations, make a request of the agency itself.
Many administrative regulations are also available
on the New Hampshire state government Web
site. Both West and Lexis publish softbound sets
of state regulations, but they are not complete.
Where To Get the Law
municipal offices have copies of the RSA volumes.
If yours does not, many public libraries have them.
For access to case law, some local libraries may have
copies of New Hampshire Reports. The New Hampshire
State Library and the New Hampshire State Law Library
(in the Supreme Court building) both have extensive
collections of statutory, regulatory and common law
and are open to the public.
internet has many useful sites. For New Hampshire
law, use the state’s official
Web site. The site contains full text copies
of the RSAs, a list of the sections affected by
legislative action, current bills and Court opinions.
information contained in this article was excerpted
from Knowing the Territory - A Survey of Municipal Law for New Hampshire Local
Officials, Spring 2003 Edition.
This 115-page handbook is a
great resource for local officials - new and experienced
alike. It’s available for $10 from NHMA (800/852-3358).