What is Legislative Intent?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

Legislative intent refers to which goals a legislative body was trying to achieve by passing a piece of legislation. Evidence as to intent is usually gathered through examination of legislative history, which may include any documentation that surrounded the creation and passing of a law or statute. Legislative intent is the source of many legal controversies, not only over interpretation but over the validity of using sources other than the text of the law to interpret the law.

Man with hands on his hips
Man with hands on his hips

A legislative body usually does not pass bills for no reason; almost every law goes through an in-depth research, reporting, and debating process before even coming to a vote. This process generates a wealth of material about the issues surrounding the bill, including committee reports, sponsor remarks, related legislation, prior case law, and transcripts or recordings of testimony. All of this information can be important in describing not only how the law came to be, but also what it was intended to accomplish.

Some argue that legislative intent is irrelevant; what matters is the text of the law. By using legislative history and other means of implying intent, critics suggest that people against the law are simply trying to push through reform that failed in the initial passing of the bill. In other words, if the intent had truly been other than what the text of the law suggests, the bill would not have passed in the first place. Moreover, since a legislative body is made up of individuals rather than a single voice, there is likely to be testimony, reports, and other historical documents in support of every argument, that can be twisted to suit any theory of intent.

Supporters of using legislative intent arguments suggest that, while ideally laws are clear enough that intent is obvious, there are still gaps and loopholes in laws that require interpretation. Since judges and legal experts are asked to clarify these gaps, understanding the intent of the legislature in passing the law can help these experts come up with a viable interpretation. Additionally, some proponents argue that the world changes: legislators of the 19th century couldn't possibly anticipate the technological and social developments of the modern world, thus their intent in creating the spirit of the law may be a more helpful guide than the text of an archaic law.

The use of legislative intent in legal interpretation plays a heavy part in the debate over judicial activism. Judicial restraint advocates believe that judges are meant solely to impose written laws, while judicial activism proponents suggest that judges are meant to interpret as well as simply impose. Depending on which side of the argument a person falls on, legislative intent becomes either a trap to be avoided or a tool to be used.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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