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Canons of Construction - Statutory Construction

statute court law words

When considering a statute, a court will apply rules of construction only when the language contained in the statute is ambiguous. Under the "plain-meaning" rule, if the intention of the legislature is "so apparent from the face of the statute that there can be no question as to its meaning, there is no need for the court to apply canons of construction" (Overseas Education Ass'n v. Federal Labor Relations Authority, 876 F.2d 960 [D.C. Cir. 1989]). Thus, before even considering what canons to apply, the court must first determine whether the statute in question is ambiguous. Courts have generally held that a statute is ambiguous when reasonably well-informed persons could understand the language in either of two or more senses (State ex rel. Neelen v. Lucas, 24 Wis. 2d 262, 128 N.W.2d 425 [1964]).

If a statute is found to be ambiguous, the court then applies a variety of canons, or rules, to help it determine the meaning of the statute. Issues of statutory construction are generally decided by the judge and not by the jury. In interpreting statutes, a judge tries to ascertain the intent of the legislature in enacting the law. By looking to legislative intent, the court attempts to carry out the will of the lawmaking branch of the government. This philosophy has its origins in the English COMMON LAW first established over four hundred years ago. As the legal philosopher SIR EDWARD COKE wrote in 1584, "[T]he office of all judges is always to make such construction as shall suppress the mischief, advance the remedy, and to suppress subtle invention and evasions for CONTINUANCE of the mischief … according to the true intent of the makers of the act" (Heydon's Case, 3 Co. Rep. 7a, 76 Eng. Rep. 637 [King's Bench 1584]). In more contemporary terms, courts consider the history and nature of the subject matter of the statute; the end to be attained by the law; the "mischief," or wrong, sought to be remedied; and the purpose to be accomplished by the law (Crowder v. First Federal Savings & Loan Ass'n of Dallas, 567 S.W.2d 550, Tex. App. 1978). In determining legislative intent courts usually turn to a variety of sources: the language of the statute itself; the LEGISLATIVE HISTORY of prior enactments on a similar subject; the proceedings surrounding the passage of the law, including debates and committee reports; and, if they are available, interpretations of the law by administrative officials.

To aid in the interpretation of an ambiguous law, a court may also look to more "intrinsic" rules not related to the activities preceding the passage of the statute. These rules are applied to help the court analyze the internal structure of the text and the conventional meanings of the terms used in the law. In addition, intrinsic rules may be used when the court has little or no existing legislative history, such as that provided by committee reports or records of other proceedings, to draw on in interpreting the statute.

Some of these canons of construction are expressed in well-known Latin phrases or maxims. Under ejusdem generis (of the same kind, class, or nature), when general words follow specific words in a statute in which several items have been enumerated, the general words are construed to embrace only objects similar in nature to the objects enumerated by the preceding specific words of the statute. Ejusdem generis saves the legislature from having to spell out in advance every contingency to which the statute could apply. For example, in a statute granting a department of conservation the authority to sell "gravel, sand, earth or other material," a court held that "other material" could only be interpreted to include materials of the same general type and did not include commercial timber (Sierra Club v. Kenney, 88 Ill. 2d 110, 57 Ill. Dec. 851, 429 N.E.2d 1214 [1981]). In the opposite situation, where specific words follow general ones, ejusdem generis is also applied; again, the general term embraces only things that are similar to those specifically enumerated.

Another MAXIM of statutory construction is expressio unius est exclusio alterius. Roughly translated, this phrase means that whatever is omitted is understood to be excluded. Thus, if a statute provides for a specific sanction for noncompliance with the statute, other sanctions are excluded and cannot be applied (Sprague v. State, 590 P.2d 410 [Alaska 1979]). The maxim is based on the rationale that if the legislature had intended to accommodate a particular remedy or allowance, it would have done so expressly; if the legislature did not provide for such an allowance or event, it should be assumed that it meant not to. The maxim has wide application and has been used by courts to interpret constitutions, treaties, wills, and contracts as well as statutes. Nevertheless, expressio unius est exclusio alterius does have its limitations. Courts have held that the maxim should be disregarded in cases in which an expanded interpretation of a statute will lead to beneficial results or will serve the purpose for which the statute was enacted.

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