In a similar vein, a more recently enacted statute generally is given more weight than an earlier enacted statute. In other words, if two statutes cannot be reconciled and appear to be in conflict, the recently-enacted statute will take precedence over the earlier-enacted statute.
Another important rule is that, when interpreting a statute, a court will give significance to each word in a statute in determining the legislative purpose. So, the last antecedent rule provides that any qualifying words are to be applied to the words or phrases immediately preceding the qualifying word(s) and are not interpreted as extending to other words.
One type of rule of statutory construction provides that, where general words follow a list of particular items, the general words will be interpreted to apply only to those items of the same general nature or class as those set forth in the statute.
Another statutory construction rule provides that a statute which lists specific items will prevent the inclusion of other items. Also, courts generally interpret the word “may” as being permissive, while the word “shall” is interpreted to be mandatory.
There is also an important rule that statutes are presumed to operate prospectively, rather than retroactively, unless there is evidence that the Legislature intended the statute to be applied retroactively. So, the presumption is against retroactive application, unless the Legislature has plainly determined by express statement or other indicia that it was their intent to apply the statute retroactively.
Again, the fundamental role of the courts in interpreting a statute is to determine the intent of the Legislature and give effect to the legislative purpose. When the statute is unclear or ambiguous, then the courts are to look to the variety of extrinsic aids to assist them. The California courts have provided explicit guidance regarding which extrinsic aids are permitted to be used. In this regard, the legislative history, as well as the general circumstances surrounding the enactment of the statute, can and should be considered by the courts in order to properly determine the intent of the Legislature.
Finally, the courts generally give deference to the interpretation of a statute given by an administrative agency that has expertise and is charged with interpreting and enforcing a statute. While not necessarily a rule of statutory construction, it is important to take this point into consideration when there is an agency determination regarding the meaning of a statute.
Chris Micheli is an attorney and registered lobbyist with the Sacramento governmental relations firm of Aprea & Micheli, Inc. He serves as an Adjunct Professor at McGeorge School of Law.