Statutory Construction in the United States
Interpretation of legislative enactments by the courts. Statutory construction is one of the primary interpretative functions of the Judiciary (Judicial Function). A statute is seldom enacted that anticipates every possible application. Thus it is necessary for courts to determine how a statute applies. Courts engaged in statutory construction may refer to records of various stages in the legislative process, such as committee hearings or floor debates, as a means of determining legislative intent. If such intent can be identified, it will govern the application of the law. If the legislative objectives are less than obvious, it becomes the province of the courts to fashion an interpretation that will cover the application. Statutory construction is different from judicial review in that it does not usually extend to nullification of an enactment as unconstitutional. Rather, statutory construction focuses upon determining which of two or more contending interpretations of a statute is to prevail. In such cases, the constitutionality of the statutory provision is not often in doubt.
Analysis and Relevance
Statutory construction is one of the basic functions of the Judiciary (U.S.). The need to interpret provisions of enactments arises frequently because legislatures typically choose to respond to policy issues in relatively general terms. Legislatures intend that detail will be forthcoming through application. What gaps exist in the general provisions are filled in by the courts (or administrative agencies) as provisions of statutes are applied to specific situations. In some instances, judges find sufficient guidance from legislative records that make intent reasonably clear. Where such clarity does not exist, it is left to the courts to choose from different possible interpretations. Exercise of interpretive power in these situations is one of the ways the courts have come to directly influence the substance of public policy. If a court interprets a law in a way that is unacceptable to the enacting legislature, that body may take “corrective” action and replace the judicial interpretation with language it prefers.
Statutes and Statutory Construction (Thomson/West), formerly by Sutherland and now by Norman J. and J.D. Shambie Singer, is the multi-volume Bible for the rules of statutory construction. An informal summary of the rules of statutory construction is posted in Wikipedia’s Statutory interpretation entry.
For cases discussing statutory construction, look in a relevant West Digest under Topic 361 (Statutes), Section VI (Construction & Operation), Key Numbers 174 through 278. You can limit your search in Westlaw to cases with a Key Number in this section by adding “& 361K!” to the end of your search or “& 361Kxxx” if you have a particular Key Number. Or you can retrieve all the cases under a particular Key Number using the format: “361Kxxx”.
Notes and References
- Definition of Statutory Construction from the American Law Dictionary, 1991, California
- Information about Statutory Construction in the Gale Encyclopedia of American Law.