Uniform State Laws in the United States
“Uniform State Laws” seeks adoption of identical or similar laws by all the states. It dates back to the late nineteenth century. The first Uniform Act was the Uniform Negotiable Instruments Law, promulgated in 1896, which was adopted in New Hampshire in 1909.
Uniform laws are the product of the Uniform Law Commission (ULC).The ULC works as a cooperative venture of all the states. It only functions as well as each state’s commitment to the uniform law movement. The ULC receives the predominant portion of its financial support from state appropriations. In return, the ULC, through its commissioners, provides the states with two important services: drafting uniform laws on subjects where uniformity is desirable and practical, and then supporting efforts by the states to enact completed acts.
A non-governmental body, the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws (NCUSL) was formed in 1892 upon the recommendation of the American Bar Association for the purpose of promoting “uniformity in state laws on all subjects where uniformity is deemed desirable and practicable.” Made up of lawyers chosen by the states, the Conference oversees the preparation of proposed laws, “Uniform Laws” which the states are encouraged to adopt. For over a century this process, carried out through committees that prepare successive drafts for review and ultimate approval by the full Conference has continued to function. To date, the Commissioners have approved more than two hundred uniform laws, of which more than 100 have been adopted by at least one state. A few have been widely adopted and have, as a consequence, approached the hoped for uniform national law on their subject.
Uniform Laws: aspiration rather than reality
The phrase “Uniform Laws” can be misleading. Upon approval by the National Conference a Uniform Law is not law anywhere in the United States. It is simply a legislative proposal addressed to fifty state legislatures. During the history of the Conference, roughly half its proposals have not been adopted by a single state. (Examples include the Uniform Construction Lien Act (1987), the Uniform Franchise and Business Opportunities Act (1987), the Uniform Putative and Unknown Fathers Act (1988).) In addition, most of those that have enjoyed reasonable success have fallen way short of the goal of adoption by all or even a majority of the states. Furthermore, the versions of the “Uniform Laws” passed by the states are rarely uniform. Variations occur at the outset since prior law or other special local conditions lead states to make changes; rarely do states adopt Uniform Laws verbatim. A second source of variance is the Conference itself. Having adopted a successful Uniform Law, the Commissioners are prompted, just as true legislators are, to revised it from time to time in the light of changing conditions and policies. This results in multiple versions of some Uniform Laws, and unless and until the states that adopted an earlier version enact the Commissioners’ revisions in multiple versions in effect in the states. There are, for example, at least two versions of the Uniform Probate Code in force in the states, the original code and 1989-1990 revisions which some states have not adopted and others have adopted only in part.
The greatest successes of the “Uniform Law” approach have been in the field of commercial and business law. Beginning with the Commissioners first product, the separate Uniform Negotiable Instruments Law (at one time in effect in all the states) and Uniform Sales Act (also widely adopted), the Conference, working together with the American Law Institute, later produced the Uniform Commercial Code (now in effect in some version in nearly all U.S. jurisdictions — see the LII’s Uniform Commercial Code Locator page).
While uniformity was the original aim of the Uniform Law process overseen by NCUSL, in time law revision or reform became a significant purpose as well. Topics for legislation where state to state variance did not create a serious problem for the conduct of business or interstate mobility but where state laws were judged by legal experts as being in need of reform have been the subject of Uniform Laws. To the extent particular acts are justified by this broader aim, their failure to win widespread adoption or to withstand the pressure for state by state variation provides less solid a basis for judging success. Indeed, such efforts may reasonably be seen as bearing fruit in cases where a Uniform Law is but one of several proposals catalyzing and shaping legislative reform. The Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act might be viewed a fair success, in this light, despite its fairly limited adoption.
The National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws publishes an important series of model Acts, referred to as “Uniform Laws,” many of which have been adopted by all, most or many states. The Web address for the NCCUSL is www.uniformlaws.org/. Their telephone number is 312-450-6600. They can answer most questions.
All the current drafts and final Uniform Laws are posted by the NCCUSL and the University of Pennsylvania. They are also available as an add-on to a HeinOnline subscription.
Annotated editions of the Uniform Laws are published in Uniform Laws Annotated(ULA). ULA tells you which states adopted each Uniform Law and how each state adjusted each individual section. You also get summaries of cases interpreting each section. The ULA is published by West and is available in most larger U.S. law libraries. An online version is searchable on Westlaw (ULA).
You can also look up which states have adopted a particular Uniform Law using one of the LII’s Uniform Code locators.
To see the text of a state’s version of a Uniform Law, look in the state’s codified statutes.
The Legal Information Institute posts a Uniform Business and Financial Laws Locatorand a Uniform Matrimonial, Family and Health Laws Locater. These Locators link to online state statutes for the related Uniform Laws.
State legislation: The NCCUSL posts a database of recent legislation that affects Uniform Laws. You can also check the Registers, Session Laws and Bill Status web sites for individual states (see State Bills and State Statutes in this legal Encyclopedia).
Prefatory Notes: Prefatory Notes are published with the the related Uniform Law inUniform Laws Annotated, after the names of Committee members and before the text of the Law. Prefatory Notes are included at the beginning of the Drafts and Final Acts posted the by Penn Law School library.
PEB Commentaries: Permanent Editorial Board Commentaries are published inUniform Laws Annotated.
Meeting Handbooks and Transcripts: The Handbooks from each Annual Conference meeting and transcripts of the proceedings of each meeting are available in the NCCUSL add-on to the subscription-based HeinOnline.
Withdrawn Acts: Sometimes the Commissioners give up on an act and withdraw it. You can get copies from superseded volumes of Martindale-Hubbell (unannotated; up to 2006) and Uniform Laws Annotated (annotated). You can get copies of either from the library of the New York County Lawyers Association (212-267-664), the State of Oregon Law Library, etc. I know that the law libraries at George Washington University and the University of Pennsylvania keep superseded volumes of Uniform Laws Annotated. Or you could call the Uniform Law Commission (312-450-6600) and ask if they would send you a copy.
The Uniform Judicial Notice of Foreign Law Act is available at 23 ALR2d 1437, section 2.
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