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Encyclopedia > Statutory interpretation


Statutory interpretation is the process of interpreting and applying legislation. Some amount of interpretation is always necessary when a case involves a statute. Sometimes the words of a statute have a plain and straightforward meaning. But in most cases, there is some ambiguity or vagueness in the words of the statute that must be resolved by the judge. To find the meanings of statutes, judges use various tools and methods of statutory interpretation, including traditional canons of statutory interpretation, legislative history, and purpose. Legislation (or statutory law) is law which has been promulgated (or enacted) by a legislature or other governing body. ... The Statute of Grand Duchy of Lithuania A statute is a formal, written law of a country or state, written and enacted by its legislative authority, perhaps to then be ratified by the highest executive in the government, and finally published. ... Look up ambiguity in Wiktionary, the free dictionary. ... Ambiguity is one way in which the meanings of words and phrases can be unclear, but there is another way, which is different from ambiguity: vagueness. ...


In common law jurisdictions, the judiciary may apply rules of statutory interpretation to legislation enacted by the legislature, or to delegated legislation such as administrative agency regulations. This article concerns the common-law legal system, as contrasted with the civil law legal system; for other meanings of the term, within the field of law, see common law (disambiguation). ... In law, the judiciary or judicature is the system of courts which administer justice in the name of the sovereign or state, and provide a mechanism for the resolution of disputes. ... A legislature is a type of representative deliberative assembly with the power to adopt laws. ... Delegated legislation (sometimes referred to as secondary legislation or subordinate legislation) is law made by ministers under powers given to them by parliamentary acts (primary legislation) in order to implement and administer the requirements of the acts. ...

Contents

General principles

Meaning

The judiciary interprets how legislation should apply in a particular case as no legislation unambiguously and specifically addresses all matters. Legislation may contain uncertainties for a variety of reasons: In law, the judiciary or judicature is the system of courts which administer justice in the name of the sovereign or state, and provide a mechanism for the resolution of disputes. ...

  • Words are imperfect symbols to communicate intent. They are ambiguous and change in meaning over time.
  • Unforeseen situations are inevitable, and new technologies and cultures make application of existing laws difficult.
  • Uncertainties may be added to the statute in the course of enactment, such as the need for compromise or catering to special interest groups.

Therefore, the court must try to determine how a statute should be enforced. This requires statutory construction. It is a tenet of statutory construction that the legislature is supreme (assuming constitutionality) when creating law and that the court is merely an interpreter of the law. In practice, by performing the construction the court can make sweeping changes in the function of the law. An interest group (also called an advocacy group, lobbying group, pressure group (UK), or special interest) is a group, however loosely or tightly organized, doing advocacy: those determined to encourage or prevent changes in public policy without trying to be elected. ...


Conflicts Between Sources of Law

Where legislation and case law are in conflict, there is a presumption that legislation takes precedence insofar as there is any inconsistency. In the United Kingdom this principle is known as Parliamentary Sovereignty. Case law (precedential law) is the body of judge-made law and legal decisions that interprets prior case law, statutes and other legal authority -- including doctrinal writings by legal scholars such as the Corpus Juris Secundum, Halsburys Laws of England or the doctinal writings found in the Recueil Dalloz...


Federal jurisdictions may presume that either federal or local government authority prevails in the absence of a defined rule. In Canada, for example, there is a presumption that the federal government has paramount authority in areas where the Constitution is silent and the legislative terrain has not been previously occupied by either the federal government or a province. This contrasts with other federal jurisdictions, notably the United States and Australia, where it is presumed that if legislation is not enacted pursuant to a specific provision of the federal Constitution, the states will have authority over the relevant matter in their respective jurisdictions. The word federal in a general sense refers to the nature of an agreement between or among two or more states, nations, or other groups to merge into a union in which control of common affairs is held by a central authority created by and with the consent of the...


Internal and external consistency

It is presumed that a statute will be interpreted so as to be internally consistent. A particular section of the statute shall not be divorced from the rest of the act. The sui generis rule applies to resolve the problem of giving meaning to groups of words where one of the words is ambiguous or inherently unclear. For example, in Criminal Law, a statute might require a mens rea element of "unlawfully and maliciously". Whereas the word "maliciously" is well-understood, the word "unlawfully" in this context is less clear. Hence, it must be given a meaning of the "same kind" as the word of established meaning. This is particularly the case when the two or more words are conjoined, i.e. linked by the word "and", as opposed to placed in a disjunctive relationship, i.e. linked by the word "or", where the interpretation of the two or more words might be different depending on the circumstances (sometimes courts have to attribute a conjunctive intention to the legislature even though the list is disjunctive because, otherwise, no sensible overall interpretation can be ascribed). Sui generis (English pronunciation (IPA) or ) is a (post) Latin expression, literally meaning of its own kind/genus or unique in its characteristics. ... Criminal law (also known as penal law) is the body of statutory and common law that deals with crime and the legal punishment of criminal offenses. ... The mens rea is the Latin term for guilty mind used in the criminal law. ... A legislature is a type of representative deliberative assembly with the power to adopt laws. ...


A statute shall not be interpreted so as to be inconsistent with other statutes. Where there is an inconsistency, the judiciary will attempt to provide a harmonious interpretation.


Canons of Statutory Interpretation

Canons give common sense guidance to courts in interpreting the meaning of statutes. Most canons emerge from the common law process through the choices of judges. Proponents of the use of canons argue that the canons constrain judges and limit the ability of the courts to legislate from the bench. Critics argue that a judge always has a choice between competing canons that lead to different results, so judicial discretion is only hidden through the use of canons, not reduced. This article concerns the common-law legal system, as contrasted with the civil law legal system; for other meanings of the term, within the field of law, see common law (disambiguation). ... Judicial activism is the tendency of some judges to take a flexible view of their power of judicial interpretation, especially when such judges import subjective reasoning that displaces objective evaluation of applicable law. ...


Textual Canons

Textual canons are rules of thumb for understanding the words of the text. Some of the canons are still known by their traditional Latin names. Latin is an ancient Indo-European language originally spoken in Latium, the region immediately surrounding Rome. ...

Ejusdem generis (Of the same kind, class, or nature) 
Where general words follow an enumeration of specific items, the general words are read as applying to other items akin to those specifically enumerated.
Expressio unius est exclusio alterius (The expression of one thing is the exclusion of another) 
If a statute lists some things to which the law applies, items not on the list are assumed not to be covered by the statute. However, sometimes a list in a statute is illustrative, not exclusionary. This is usually indicated by a word such as "includes."
In pari materia (Upon the same matter or subject) 
When a statute is ambiguous, its meaning may be determined in light of other statutes on the same subject matter.
Noscitur a sociis (It is known from its associates) 
When a word is ambiguous, its meaning may be determined by reference to the rest of the statute.
Plain Meaning 
The legislature intended to use ordinary English words in their ordinary senses.

Substantive Canons

Substantive canons instruct the court to favor interpretations that promote certain values or policy results.

"Charming Betsy" Canon 
National statute must be construed so as not to conflict with international law.
Interpretation in Light of Fundamental Values 
Statute does not violate fundamental societal values. (Holy Trinity Church)
Rule of Lenity 
In construing an ambiguous criminal statute, the court should resolve the ambiguity in favor of the defendant.

Holding The circuit court did err when it held that the contract hiring an English rector was within the prohibition of the statute which disallowed a ...person, company, partnership, or corporation, in any manner whatsoever to prepay the transportation, or in any way assist or encourage the importation or migration...

Deference Canons

Deference canons instruct the court to defer to the interpretation of another institution, such as an administrative agency or Congress. These canons reflect an understanding that the judiciary is not the only branch of government entrusted with constitutional responsibility.

Deference to Administrative Interpretations (US Chevron deference) 
If the statute grants power to an administrative agency and is ambiguous with respect to the specific issue, the courts will defer to the agency's reasonable interpretation of the statute. This rule of deference was formulated in the US by the United States Supreme Court in Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council, 467 U.S. 837 (1984).
Avoidance Canon (Canon of Constitutional Avoidance) 
If a statute is susceptible to more than one reasonable construction, courts should choose an interpretation that avoids raising constitutional problems. In the US, this canon has grown stronger in recent history. The traditional avoidance canon required the court to choose a different interpretation only when one interpretation was actually unconstitutional. The modern avoidance canon tells the court to choose a different interpretation when another interpretation merely raises constitutional doubts.
Avoiding Absurdity 
The legislature did not intend an absurd or manifestly unjust result.
Clear Statement Rule 
When a statute may be interpreted to abridge long-held rights of individuals or states, or make a large policy change, courts will not interpret the statute to make the change unless the legislature clearly stated it. This rule is based on the assumption that the legislature would not make major changes in a vague or unclear way.
Last in Time 
When two statutes conflict, the one enacted last prevails.

The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest judicial body in the United States and is the only part of the judicial branch of the United States federal government explicitly specified in the United States Constitution. ... Holding Courts must defer to administrative agency interpretations of the authority granted to them by Congress (1) where the grant of authority was ambiguous, and (2) where the interpretation was reasonable or permissible. ... // Case citation is the system used in common law countries such as the United States, England and Wales, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and India to uniquely identify the location of past court cases in special series of books called reporters or law reports. ...

Criticism

Critics of the use of canons argue that canons impute some sort of "omniscience" to the legislator, suggesting that it is aware of the canons when constructing the laws. In addition, it is argued that the canons give a credence to judges who want to construct the law a certain way, imparting a false sense of justification to their otherwise arbitrary process. In a classic article, Karl Llewellyn argued that every canon had a "counter-canon" that would lead to the opposite interpretation of the statute. This article or section does not cite its references or sources. ...


However, it could be argued that the fundamental nature of language is to blame for the problem of "for every canon, a counter." Interpreting whether a statute applies to a given set of facts often boils down to analyzing whether a single word or short phrase covers some element of the factual situation before the judge. The expansiveness of the English language necessarily means that there will often be good (or equally unconvincing) arguments for two competing interpretations. A judge is then forced to resort to documentation of legislative intent, which may also be unhelpful, and then finally to his or her own judgment of what outcome is ultimately fair and logical under the totality of the circumstances. Canons of statutory construction give judges the ability to decide questions of statutory interpretation that necessarily rely on an element of judicial discretion.


Modern-day legislative process, the latest symbol of which is a Congress that barely worked three days a week, exacerbates the problem. A low legislative workrate naturally leads to inartfully drafted legislation that may have the additional problem of not logically fitting into the existing statutory scheme, the tax and immigration code being the worst offendors. Judges have no choice but to decide what vague statutory language means when properly presented with the question, as sending the case over to Congress to ask what was meant is not an option.


Philosophies of Statutory Interpretation

Over time, various methods of statutory construction have fallen in and out of favor. Some of the better known rules of construction methods are:

Within the context of law, the Golden rule, also known as the British rule, means that the words of a statute should be understood in their ordinary sense. ... Motto: (French for God and my right) Anthem: God Save the King/Queen Capital London Largest city London Official language(s) English (de facto) Unification    - by Athelstan AD 927  Area    - Total 130,395 km² (1st in UK)   50,346 sq mi  Population    - 2005 est. ... // Literal rule (plain meaning) Meaning According to this rule, words must be given their plain, ordinary and literal meaning. ... This scheme of statutory construction declares that a statute should not be construed in a way that would violate normal societal values or good. ... The Mischief rule is a form of statutory construction that attempts to determine the legislators intention. ... Purposive approach (legislation implementing European Community Law) Under the European Communities Act 1972, the court must adopt a purposive approach in construing legislation that implements EC law. ...

Related reading

  • The multi-volume Sutherland Statutory Construction is the authoritative text on the rules of statutory construction.
  • Karl Llewellyn, Remarks on the Theory of Appellate Decisions and the Rules or Canons About How Statutes Are to Be Construed 3 Vand. L. Rev. 395 (1950).
  • United States of America v. William C. Scrimgeour 636 F.2d 1019 (5th Cir. 1981) discusses most aspects of statutory construction.
  • Brudney & Ditslear, Canons of Construction and the Elusive Quest for Neutral Reasoning
  • Sinclair, Michael, "Llewellyn's Dueling Canons, One to Seven: A Critique". New York Law School Law Review, Vol. 51, Fall 2006 Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=780424
  • Statutory Construction Blog at http://www.lawprofessors.typepad.com/statutory/
  • Corrigan & Thomas, “Dice Loading” Rules Of Statutory Interpretation, 59 NYU Annual Survey Of American Law 231, 238 (2003). Avaliable at SSRN: http://www.nyu.edu/pubs/annualsurvey/articles/59%20N.Y.U.%20Ann.%20Surv.%20Am.%20L.%20231%20(2003).pdf

See also

Law - Portal
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Critical legal studies | Economic analysis of law | New institutional economics

Legal Institutions Judiciary | Legislature | Executive | Military and Police | Bureaucracy | Civil society | Legal profession


Judicial activism is the tendency of some judges to take a flexible view of their power of judicial interpretation, especially when such judges import subjective reasoning that displaces objective evaluation of applicable law. ... Judicial interpretation is a theory or mode of thought that explains how the judiciary should interpret the law, particularly constitutional documents and legislation (see statutory interpretation). ... The rule of law is the principle that governmental authority is legitimately exercised only in accordance with written, publicly disclosed laws adopted and enforced in accordance with established procedure. ... // Balancing scales are symbolic of how law mediates peoples interests For other senses of this word, see Law (disambiguation). ... Image File history File links Scale_of_justice. ... // Balancing scales are symbolic of how law mediates peoples interests For other senses of this word, see Law (disambiguation). ... A contract is a legally binding exchange of promises or agreement between parties. ... // Tort is a legal term that means civil wrong, as opposed to a criminal wrong. ... The Law of Obligations is one of the component elements of the civil law system of law and encompasses contractual obligations, quasi-contractual obligations such as unjust enrichment and extra-contractual obligations. ... Property designates those real or intellectual goods that are commonly recognized as being the rightful possessions of a person or group. ... The term trust has several meanings: In sociology, trust is willing acceptance of one persons power to affect another. ... Constitutional law is the study of foundational laws that govern the scope of powers and authority of various bodies in relation to the creation and execution of other laws by a government. ... Administrative law (or regulatory law) is the body of law that arises from the activities of administrative agencies of government. ... Criminal law (also known as penal law) is the body of statutory and common law that deals with crime and the legal punishment of criminal offenses. ... International law deals with the relationships between states, or between persons or entities in different states. ... Conflict of laws, or private international law, or international private law is that branch of international law and interstate law that regulates all lawsuits involving a foreign law element, where a difference in result will occur depending on which laws are applied as the lex causae. ... The European Union is unique among international organisations in having a complex and highly developed system of internal law which has direct effect within the legal systems of its member states. ... // Balancing scales are symbolic of how law mediates peoples interests For other senses of this word, see Law (disambiguation). ... Commercial law or business law is the body of law which governs business and commerce and is often considered to be a branch of civil law and deals both with issues of private law and public law. ... Corporations law or corporate law is the law concerning the creation and regulation of corporations. ... In law, intellectual property (IP) is an umbrella term for various legal entitlements which attach to certain types of information, ideas, or other intangibles in their expressed form. ... The following analysis is based on English law. ... Restitution is the name given to a form of legal relief in which the plaintiff recovers something from the defendant that belongs, or should belong, to the plaintiff. ... Tax law is the codified system of laws that describes government levies on economic transactions, commonly called taxes. ... The examples and perspective in this article or section may not represent a worldwide view. ... It has been suggested that this article or section be merged with antitrust. ... Consumer protection is government regulation to protect the interests of consumers, for example by requiring businesses to disclose detailed information about products, particularly in areas where safety or public health is an issue, such as food. ... Environmental law is a body of law, which is a system of complex and interlocking statutes, common law, treaties, conventions, regulations and policies which seeks to protect the natural environment which may be affected, impacted or endangered by human activities. ... Public services is a term usually used to mean services provided by government to its citizens, either directly (through the public sector) or by financing private provision of services. ... This article is in need of attention. ... Human rights law is a system of laws, both domestic and international which is intended to promote human rights. ... Nationality law is the branch of a countrys legal system wherein legislation, custom and court precendent combine to define the ways in which that countrys nationality and citizenship are transmitted, acquired or lost. ... Social security primarily refers to a field of social welfare concerned with social protection, or protection against socially recognized conditions, including poverty, old age, disability, unemployment, families with children and others. ... Family Law was a television drama starring Kathleen Quinlan as a divorced lawyer who attempted to start her own law firm after her lawyer husband took all their old clients. ... The law of evidence governs the use of testimony (e. ... This article concerns the common-law legal system, as contrasted with the civil law legal system; for other meanings of the term, within the field of law, see common law (disambiguation). ... Civil law is the predominant system of law in the world, with its origins in Roman law, and sets out a comprehensive system of rules, usually codified, that are applied and interpreted by judges. ... In the religious sense, law can be thought of as the ordering principle of reality; knowledge as revealed by God defining and governing all human affairs. ... In law, custom, or customary law consists of established patterns of behaviour that can be objectively verified within a particular social setting. ... Socialist law is the official name of the legal system used in Communist states. ... To meet Wikipedias quality standards, this article or section may require cleanup. ... This article is about law in society. ... ... In Egyptian mythology, Maàt was the goddess of truth, justice and order as well as a word referring to those concepts she represents. ... The material for the study of Babylonian law is singularly extensive. ... Roman law is the legal system of ancient Rome. ... The Arthashastra (more precisely Arthaśāstra) is a treatise on statecraft and economic policy which identifies its author by the names Kauá¹­ilya[1] and Viṣṇugupta,[2] who are traditionally identified with the Mauryan minister Cāṇakya. ... Magna Carta Magna Carta (Latin for Great Charter, literally Great Paper), also called Magna Carta Libertatum (Great Charter of Freedoms), is an English charter originally issued in 1215. ... Jurisprudence is the theory and philosophy of law. ... Legal positivism is a school of thought in jurisprudence and the philosophy of law. ... Natural law (Latin jus naturale) is law that exists independently of the positive law of a given political order, society or nation-state. ... Legal formalism is a Positivist view in jurisprudence and the philosophy of law. ... The study of feminist legal theory is a school thought based on the common view that laws treatment of women in relation to men has not been equal nor fair. ... Critical legal studies refers to a movement in legal thought that applied methods similar to those of critical theory (the Frankfurt School) to law. ... Law and economics, or Economic analysis of law, is the term usually applied to an approach to legal theory that incorporates methods and ideas borrowed from the discipline of economics. ... New institutional economics is a school of heterodox economics, which builds on old institutional economics arguments about the embeddedness of economic activity in social and legal institutions, using Ronald Coases fundamental insight about the critical role that transaction costs play in determining economic structures and performance. ... // Balancing scales are symbolic of how law mediates peoples interests For other senses of this word, see Law (disambiguation). ... In law, the judiciary or judicature is the system of courts which administer justice in the name of the sovereign or state, and provide a mechanism for the resolution of disputes. ... A legislature is a type of representative deliberative assembly with the power to adopt laws. ... The Politics series Politics Portal This box:      Bureaucracy is a concept in sociology and political science referring to the way that the administrative execution and enforcement of legal rules are socially organized. ... Civil society or civil institutions refers to the totality of voluntary civic and social organizations or institutions which form the basis of a functioning society as opposed to the force backed structures of a state (regardless of that states political system). ... A lawyer is a person licensed by the state to advise clients in legal matters and represent them in courts of law and in other forms of dispute resolution. ...


  Results from FactBites:
 
Statutory Interpretation in the Supreme Court of Canada (20503 words)
Developing such a methodology, she suggests, is a judicial responsibility, for statutory interpretation is one of several areas in which superior courts have an inherent jurisdiction to fix norms.
An interpreter who is not a strict textualist would expect first impression meaning to depend not only on the text and co-text but also on whatever knowledge of context she brings to the text.
An appropriate interpretation is one that can be justified in terms of (a) its plausibility, that is, its compliance with the legislative text; (b) its efficacy, that is, its promotion of the legislative purpose; and (c) its acceptability, that is, the outcome it produces is not unjust or unfair.
Issues in Legal Scholarship (242 words)
Eskridge's theory of dynamic statutory interpretation is addressed to courts, and makes a highly persuasive argument, but it is even more convincing with respect to the interpretive functions of administrative agencies.
More importantly, agency rule making and enforcement activities are necessarily interpretive, since they are supposed to implement an enacted statute, and here dynamic statutory interpretation is the only plausible approach to such interpretation.
The objections to statutory interpretation that Eskridge takes so seriously in his article - formalism, separation of powers, public choice and the countermajoritarian difficulty - are all insubstantial in the administrative rule making and enforcement context.
  More results at FactBites »

 
 

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