Statutory Interpretation, Part 1: A beginning

April 10, 2014

Law school blog 5Defining terms and phrases in statutes and regulations is one of the common tasks given to attorneys. How do you define “malicious”? When is a party to an action a “prevailing party”? Unfortunately, the answers to these questions are scattered between case-law, canons of construction, other statutes, restatements, legislative history, and committee drafting notes. This three-part lesson teaches you step-by-step research strategies that simplify the process of finding these answers.


Before we begin discussing research strategies, there are three points worth making.

#1 Common Sense (And The Canons Of Construction) Are Your Best Tool

The most important rule when interpreting a statute is: “In determining the meaning of a statute, we look first to its language, giving the words used their ordinary meaning.” Levin v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 1224, 1231 (2013). This is a rule that you will find yourself coming back to again and again, no matter what jurisdiction you are in. Most statutes do not come with line-by-line analysis and while courts do interpret the language of statutes, often no cases exist for your specific word or phrase. In fact, the vast majority of statutes require lawyers to use their common sense and plain understanding of the English language to interpret.

So why aren’t we starting with the Canons of Construction? Because this is also true: “[C]anons are not mandatory rules. They are guides that ‘need not be conclusive.’” Chickasaw Nation v United States, 534 US 84, 94, 122 S Ct 528, 535, (2001). Ideally, we want to rely on materials that have direct, precedential value; when we cannot find such material, we move on to the Canons of Construction.  

#2 Most Statutes Are Never Explicitly Interpreted By The Courts

Most statutes are never explicitly interpreted or defined by the courts. Many statutes will never be at issue or in controversy in a court-case. Even if the statute is in controversy, most will be easily interpreted without resorting to line-by-line analysis by the judge. If you can’t find what you are looking for, there is a very good chance it isn’t there!

#3 Explicit Definitions Are Not The Only Way To Interpret A Statute

One common mistake when interpreting statutes is becoming fixated on finding “definitions” for each term within the statute. Do not fall into this trap! Courts will often provide you with useful analysis without saying that they are “defining” a term or phrase within the statute. For example, sometimes the analysis of a specific sub-section is more helpful than any definition.

 Law School statutory interpretation 1

There are no cases that explicitly define what “authority” means for this statute. However the commentary for the Rule provides excellent guidance without using the words defined, meaning, etc.

 Law School statutory interpretation 2

The point here, is that when you are interpreting a statute, do not become fixated on definitions! There is a wide selection of materials you can use, and you are limiting yourself if you focus only on definitions.