Statutory Construction

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.

Legal Materials

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

  1. Definition of Statutory Construction from the American Law Dictionary, 1991, California

See Also

Judicial Function (Judicial Function) Judicial Review (Judicial Function) Statute (Judicial Function).
Private Laws
Public Laws
State Legislation
State Statutes
State Codes


Further Reading

Statutory Construction: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

Federal Primary Materials

The U.S. federal government system consists of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each of which creates information that can be the subject of legal research about Statutory Construction. This part provides references, in relation to Statutory Construction, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

Federal primary materials about Statutory Construction by content types:

Laws and Regulations

US Constitution
Federal Statutory Codes and Legislation

Federal Case Law and Court Materials

U.S. Courts of Appeals
United States courts of appeals, inclouding bankruptcy courts and bankcruptcy appellate panels:

Federal Administrative Materials and Resources

Presidential Materials

Materials that emanate from the President’s lawmaking function include executive orders for officers in departments and agencies and proclamations for announcing ceremonial or commemorative policies. Presidential materials available include:

Executive Materials

Federal Legislative History Materials

Legislative history traces the legislative process of a particular bill (about Statutory Construction and other subjects) for the main purpose of determining the legislators’ intent behind the enactment of a law to explain or clarify ambiguities in the language or the perceived meaning of that law (about Statutory Construction or other topics), or locating the current status of a bill and monitoring its progress.

State Administrative Materials and Resources

State regulations are rules and procedures promulgated by state agencies (which may apply to Statutory Construction and other topics); they are a binding source of law. In addition to promulgating regulations, state administrative boards and agencies often have judicial or quasi-judicial authority and may issue administrative decisions affecting Statutory Construction. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about Statutory Construction should check state agency web sites for their regulations, decisions, forms, and other information of interest.

State rules and regulations are found in codes of regulations and administrative codes (official compilation of all rules and regulations, organized by subject matter). Search here:

State opinions of the Attorney General (official written advisory opinions on issues of state law related to Statutory Construction when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

Tools and Forms

Law in Other Regions

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