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How Do Courts Interpret Statutory Law?

Renee Booker
Renee Booker

Statutes are laws that have been written and passed by the legislative body within a jurisdiction. Although all efforts are made during the legislative process to create clear statutes, statutory law must still be interpreted by courts if a word, term, or phrase is vague or open to more than one interpretation. In civil law judicial systems, the courts have very little authority to interpret statutes; however, in common law legal systems, courts are often called upon to interpret or clarify statutory law. Courts use a variety of methods to do so, including the purpose and history of the legislation, as well as its conformity with other laws or agencies. Courts may also use canons of interpretation, which have been used since the time of the ancient Roman legal system.

When called on to interpret a statute, a judge will look to the purpose and history of the legislation. In most judicial systems, the process by which legislation is passed is a long and involved process. In most cases, there will be a written record that follows the legislation from start to finish, including debates over the legislation. A judge may use the information gained from the statute's history to help determine what the purpose of the legislation was, and apply that to the interpretation of any ambiguous terms.

A judge often tries to interpret statutory law in a way that it does not conflict with other laws.
A judge often tries to interpret statutory law in a way that it does not conflict with other laws.

When interpreting a statute, a judge will first attribute the common and accepted meaning to the words within the statute. A judge will also usually try to interpret statutory law in a way that it does not conflict with other laws or encroach upon another agency's jurisdiction. Of course, in some cases, there is no way to interpret the statute in a way that conforms with current legislation or that does not infringe upon another agency's jurisdiction.

A judge may also rely on ancient canons of construction when interpreting statutory law. Three basic categories of canons are used to interpret laws — deference, textual, and substantive. Within each category are a number of "canons," or general rules, that guide a judge in how to interpret a law. For example, one of the textual canons holds that when a list of items are specifically mentioned in a statute, then anything not on the list is not included unless the list is prefaced with a qualifier, such as "for example." Another example is the avoidance canon within the deference category, which calls for choosing the interpretation that does not create constitutional issues when a statute may be interpreted in more than one way.

Discussion Comments


@stl156 - I think maybe an even better example is the Clean Water Act passed around the same time. It has gone though a few high-profile Supreme Court cases arguing its meaning. It is no surprise that environmental laws come under a lot of criticism compared to laws against people, because it is often very hard to determine the cause of these problems and how much damage is being done by whom.

I always think it is interesting to read Supreme Court opinions. Justice Scalia is famous for being a very strict user of the textual canon by interpreting words exactly as they are written. I've even read one case where he talked at length about what the word "and" meant in a phrase.

On the other hand, some of the other Justices have very loose interpretations of what words mean and to what extent they should encompass certain issues.


@jmc88 - I think a good example of a court case demonstrating your point is the Endangered Species Act. It was written in the early 1970s when environmental issues were just starting to become important to many Americans. At the time it was written, I feel that the vast majority of lawmakers agreed that the species that should be protected were large, commercially valuable species that were in danger of becoming extinct.

Over time, though, people started challenging the wording of the law saying it actually applied to any plant or animal no matter how large or small. Eventually, the Supreme Court agreed that this was indeed the case, because the statute didn't specifically state which organisms were to be protected.


@Emilski - I would say lawmaking is partisan just like everything else in politics. As far as federal laws go, a lot of the laws that are passed depend on the Supreme Court's makeup. If it is currently a "conservative" court that tends to interpret the U.S. Constitution more strictly, Democratic lawmakers may be reluctant to pass laws that are likely to be interpreted by the Supreme Court in a way that will hurt their party. Obviously, the same is true for "liberal" courts and Republicans.

In other cases, I don't know if legislators are necessarily lazy. I can't think of any good examples, but there have been several cases where I am sure most people in Congress agreed upon the meaning of a law, and didn't think to specifically clarify points. Later on, though, society's ideas shifted and the law suddenly become less clear.


I knew that interpretation of laws was complicated, but I never knew that there were canons judges used when determining the meanings of laws.

I think it is unfortunate that statutes come down to needing the courts to interpret them. I can understand how this would have happened with some early laws, but by this point, I feel like legislators should understand that unless they make very specific wording regarding the intended extent of the law that it will end up being challenged.

I feel like a lot of lawmakers probably know this and either make poorly worded laws for a couple of reasons. They either know their law will be challenged and just want to get the law passed anyway, or they are too lazy to think of the possible issues that could arise with the law and implement wording to solve it.

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    • A judge often tries to interpret statutory law in a way that it does not conflict with other laws.
      By: Junial Enterprises
      A judge often tries to interpret statutory law in a way that it does not conflict with other laws.