Statutory Construction

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The process of determining what a particular statute means so that a court may apply it accurately.


Any question of statutory interpretation begins with looking at the plain language of the statute to discover its original intent. To discover a statute's original intent, courts first look to the words of the statute and apply their usual and ordinary meanings.

If after looking at the language of the statute the meaning of the statute remains unclear, courts attempt to ascertain the intent of the legislature by looking at legislative history and other related sources. Courts generally steer clear of any interpretation that would create an absurd result which the Legislature did not intend.

Because legislators may intend different things when they vote for a bill, statutory construction is often fairly difficult. Statutes are sometimes ambiguous enough to support more than one interpretation. In these cases, courts are free to interpret statutes themselves. Once a court interprets the statute, other courts usually will not go through the exercise again, but rather will enforce the statute as interpreted by the other court, similar to stare decisis.

Rules Often Followed for Statutory Interpretation

  • Statutes should be internally consistent. A particular section of the statute should not be inconsistent with the rest of the statute.
  • When the legislature enumerates an exception to a rule, one can infer that there are no other exceptions.
  • When the legislature includes limiting language in an earlier version of a statute, but deletes it prior to enactment of the statute, it can be presumed that the limitation was not intended by the legislature.
  • The legislature is presumed to act intentionally and purposely when it includes language in one section but omits it in another.
  • Where legislation and case law conflict, courts generally presume that legislation takes precedence over case law.
  • The Rule of Lenity: in construing an ambiguous criminal statute, a court should resolve the ambiguity in favor of the defendant.
  • A court may also look at: the common usage of a word, case law, dictionaries, parallel reasoning, punctuation

Further Reading

For more on statutory construction, see this Montana Law Review article, this Kansas Law Review article, and this Hofstra Law Review article.