Rules of Statutory Construction for the Non-Lawyer

Screenshot 2017-06-22 at 08.11.04By Chris Micheli

For those working in and around the State Capitol, it is important to understand the general rules of statutory construction, even as non-lawyers. What is the purpose of statutory construction? The general rules of statutory construction are used in interpreting statutes by the courts. However, by understanding these rules, those drafting statutes can be guided by the rules that the courts will use in interpreting those statutes. That is why even non-lawyers should familiarize themselves with the rules.

While courts are not required to follow these rules of statutory construction in every instance, they are intended to guide the courts in determining what the intent of the Legislature was in enacting the particular statute. The general rule of statutory construction is to effectuate the intent of the Legislature which basically requires the courts to give the statutory language its usual and ordinary meaning.

The fundamental rule of statutory construction is known as the “plain language” rule. This rule provides that, when the meaning of a statute is clear and unambiguous, there is usually no need for a court to apply any of the rules of statutory construction because the “plain meaning” of the statute can be ascertained without resorting to the use of extrinsic aids. Under this rule, if the statute is clear, then the courts presume that the Legislature meant what it wrote in the statute and the courts give effect to the plain meaning of the statute.

In order to resort to the general rules of statutory construction, a court determines that there is ambiguity in the statutory language and, as a result, it is unclear what was intended by the Legislature in enacting the statute. The courts have determined that a party demonstrates statutory ambiguity by providing an alternative meaning to the statutory language. As a result, if the statutory language can be given more than one interpretation, then a court generally must consider extrinsic aids to determine the purpose of the statute and the intent of the Legislature.

Among the extrinsic aids are the legislative history of a statute, the public policy surrounding its enactment, the statutory scheme in which the language exists, and other related items. In this regard, the language of a statute should be construed in light of the rest of the statutory scheme in which the particular statute is found. The goal of the courts is to harmonize the parts of the statute by considering the context of the statutory framework. For example, statutes related to the same subject should be interpreted consistently.

In regards to interpreting general versus specific statutes, if a specific statute is deemed to be inconsistent with a general statute that covers the same subject matter, then the specific statute is usually deemed to be an exception to rule provided by the general statute. In addition, as a general rule of statutory construction, courts must construe an exemption in a statute narrowly.

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.


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