statutory interpretation

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

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. Regardless of their interpretive theory, judges use a lot of the same tools to gather evidence of statutory meaning, as followed:

  1. Judges often begin by looking at the ordinary meaning of the statutory text. 
  2. Courts interpret specific provisions by looking at the broader statutory context. 
  3. Judges may turn to the canons of construction, which are guides and presumptions about how courts ordinarily read statutes. 
  4. Courts may look at the legislative history of a provision. 
  5. Judges may consider how a statute has been implemented. 

Although both purposivists and textualists may use these same tools, judges’ theory of statutory interpretation 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