Sources of Statutory Interpretation

Interpretation is a quest by judges to use the best available theory and information to determine what statute means. There are three general categories of sources of statutory interpretation:

  • intrinsic (or textual)
    • The textual canons are merely guidelines or presumptions, which help judges to draw inference from the words, grammar, and structure of the statutes:
      • Expressio unius – read the expression of one thing to mean the exclusion of other things
      • Noscitur a sociis – interpret a general term to be similar to more specific terms in a series
      • Ejusdem generis – interpret a general term to reflect the class of objects reflected in more specific terms accompanying it
      • The Identical Words presumption – interpret the same or similar words in statutes to mean the same thing
      • The Rule Against Surplusage – avoid interpreting a provision in a way that would render other words, sections, or provisions of the act redundant or unnecessary.
    • The components of the bill: titles, preambles, and section headings
  • extrinsic (including legislative history) – used to look beyond the text itself to discern the statute’s meaning:
    • legislative history – controversial
    • subsequent legislation inaction – controversial
    • agency interpretations – deferring to administrative interpretations is increasingly common, even mandated, in some situation
  • policy-base – sources derived from the Constitution or from existing common law concepts:
    • Rule of Lenity, derived from Due Process clause
    • Avoid constitutional question, due to separation of powers
    • statutes in derogation of the common law – requires strict construction
    • remedial statutes – require broad construction

The words are the starting point of interpretation. However, a statute is larger than simply its words; syntax, punctuation, grammar and related statues are also important intrinsic sources.

Extrinsic source usually came from the legislative pen and passed through the constitutionally required enactment process.

A statute’s text is the starting point for interpretation, because (1) the language of the statute was enacted by legislature and signed by the governor, (2) one should view the language in light of the fact of the case, and (3) the meaning of the language will follow the usage of the English language.

If a statute is clear, error-free and never led to absurd or illogical result, then consulting any other source might be irrelevant. However, when the language in the statute is unclear or just makes no sense, then judges consult sources beyond the text of the statute.

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