Statutory Interpretation, Part 2: The basics, using Westlaw’s statutory enhancements

April 18, 2014

Law school blog 51. Commentary & Advisory Committee Notes

Certain statutes and laws, such as rules of court and sentencing guidelines are often accompanied by commentary or advisory committee notes. If the law you are researching has commentary or advisory notes, read the notes before doing anything else. In many cases, these notes will be more informative and helpful to you than case-law. Also, unlike legislative history, commentary and committee notes have precedential value and should be applied unless they cannot be logically construed with the laws themselves. See Stinson v. United States, 508 U.S. 36, 40, 113 S. Ct. 1913, 1916, fn 4, (1993). You will find these notes directly underneath the statute or court rule themselves.

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Tip: Always check to see if your jurisdiction treats commentary & advisory notes as having precedential value.

2. Table of Contents

Your next stop is the Table of Contents for your statute. Click on the link to the Table of Contents on the right hand side of the page. Many times a statute will be a part of a larger statutory scheme that includes a definitions section.

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If the term you were looking to define isn’t in this definitions section, this can be a clue in and of itself. For example, it may mean that the drafters didn’t think that it was necessary to define the term you are looking for, and instead they are using the term according to its plain language and the canons of construction.

3. Notes of Decision

Another great statutory enhancement provided by WestlawNext is the Notes of Decisions. Notes of Decisions contains cases and attorney general opinions that are hand-selected by Westlaw’s editors because they shed light on a particular aspect of the statute. You will Notes of Decisions on its own tab directly above the text of every statute. Not all statutes have Notes of Decisions. Occasionally, there will be cases defining terms within the statute. Remember, don’t just look for something labeled “definitions”! See if you can find a Notes of Decisions topic that mentions your terms, the cases and opinions contained within may shed light on the terms without explicitly defining them.

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4. Context & Analysis

Another useful statutory enhancement provided by Westlaw is the Context & Analysis tab. This tab contains links to secondary sources, Key Numbers associated with the statute, and other laws that may interact with the statute. Like Notes of Decisions, this resource is created by Westlaw’s editors. You will probably not find anything that is labeled as a definition on this page, but the secondary sources may be extremely helpful to you in interpreting the statute. Practitioner’s guides are particularly helpful in giving you a broad sense of how a statute has been interpreted in the past and how it is used. If you are stumped on how to proceed, this is a great place to browse!

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For help with statutory interpretation, one secondary source to use, in particular, is Sutherland Statutes & Statutory Construction. Sutherland lays out the principles of statutory interpretation.

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