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What is Statutory Construction?

Charity Delich
Charity Delich

The term statutory construction is used to describe the process of a court applying certain rules, canons, or maxims in order to decipher the meaning of language used in a statute by its drafters. Usually, the statute drafters are a rule-making body, like a legislature. Courts typically only apply rules of statutory construction when the words that make up a law have an unclear meaning. Judges, rather than juries, normally interpret statutes. In doing so, they usually seek to uncover what the legislature intended when enacting a particular law.

When interpreting a statute, a court may look at a number of different factors, such as its plain meaning, legislative history, and other intrinsic factors. Statutory construction rules typically dictate that a court should first look at the plain meaning of the statute. Essentially, this means that the court will evaluate the usual and ordinary meaning of the words used to draft the law.

Man with hands on his hips
Man with hands on his hips

If the intent of the law is still unclear, even after applying the plain meaning of the language, courts generally examine legislative history. Through this process, they seek to uncover what the legislature intended the language to mean by studying a range of different sources, depending on what’s available. For example, a court may look at the wording of the actual law, historical documents, legislative debates and reports, and the events that occurred during the passage of the law. If administrative agencies have given any opinions interpreting the law, courts may also evaluate these documents.

In some cases, a court may be required to use intrinsic rules to aid in statutory construction. These rules are usually applied when the plain meaning of the statute is ambiguous and when legislative history is minimal or unavailable. Intrinsic rules are simply aids that exist within the statute itself. In other the words, the court examines all or part of the statute in order to decipher the overall purpose of the law. A relatively large number of intrinsic rules of construction exist.

One of the intrinsic rules a court may use involves the concept of classes or kinds. Under this principle, when general wording follows specific items, people, or classes in a statute, the general wording is applied only to items, people, or classes of the same or similar nature as the specific items. Another intrinsic statutory construction rule holds that the meaning of an ambiguous word can be resolved by looking at the rest of the statute to interpret it. In interpreting an ambiguous statute, courts may also look at other laws covering the same subject matter. An additional intrinsic rule holds that, if there is a list detailing specific items, any items that are not expressly covered on the list aren’t meant to be included in the law.

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