statutory construction

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Statutory construction is the process of determining what a particular statute means so that a court may apply it accurately; also known as statutory interpretation. Although sometimes the words of a statute may have a plain meaning; in many cases there is some ambiguity in the words of the statute that must be resolved by the judge. To find the true meanings of statutes, judges use various tools of statutory interpretation, including traditional canons of construction, legislative history, and purpose.

Statutory construction begins with looking at the plain language of the statute to determine its original intent. To determine 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 Construction

  • 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.

In the United States, there are two main theories of statutory interpretation (purposivism and textualism) on how judges can best adhere to this ideal of legislative supremacy. 

Although both purposivists and textualists may use these same tools, the particular judge's theory of statutory construction may influence the order in which these tools are applied and how much weight is given to each tool.

[Last updated in August of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team