Friday, December 2, 2011

Certain Modern American Rules of Interpretation

Although these have nothing to do with the formation or meaning of the Constitution, I thought it might be worthwhile to note how statutes are interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court.  Here are some of the leading rules (of which some are closely related):

1. The ultimate objective is to give effect to the intent of Congress.

“First, always, is the question whether Congress has directly spoken to the precise question at issue.  If the intent of Congress is clear, that is the end of the matter; for the court, as well as the agency, must give effect to the unambiguously expressed intent of Congress.”  Chevron USA Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984).

2. Begin with the text of the statute.

“As in any case of statutory construction, our analysis begins with ‘the language of the statute.’  And where the statutory language provides a clear answer, it ends there as well.”  Hughes Aircraft Co. v. Jacobson, 525 U.S. 432 (1999).

3. Unless a term is defined in the text, it is to be given its ordinary meaning.

“The statute could not be clearer in its use of the term ‘before,’ and since the statute does not define or limit the term ‘before,’ we presume Congress intended to give that term its ordinary meaning.”  Asgrow Seed Co. v. Winterboer, 513 U.S. 179 (1995).

4. Where the statute seems to be unambiguous, judicial inquiry is complete, except for in the event of an extraordinary showing of a contrary congressional intention.

“While we now turn to the legislative history as an additional tool of analysis, we do so with the recognition that only the most extraordinary showing of contrary intentions from those data would justify a limitation on the ‘plain meaning’ of the statutory language.  When we find the terms of a statute unambiguous, judicial inquiry is complete, except in ‘rare and exceptional circumstances.’”  Garcia v. United States, 469 U.S. 70 (1984).

5. Give effect to every clause of a statute, rather than to emasculate an entire section—United States v. Menasche, Dole v. United Steelworkers of America

“‘The cardinal principle of statutory construction is to save and not to destroy.’  Labor Board v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., 301 U. S. 1, 30.  It is our duty ‘to give effect, if possible, to every clause and word of a statute,’ Montclair v. Ramsdell, 107 U. S. 147, 152, rather than to emasculate an entire section, as the Government’s interpretation requires.”  United States v. Menasche, 348 U.S. 528 (1955).

6. It isn’t just a member of a sentence that is important; it is the policy to be achieved—Dole v. United Steelworkers of America

“Over and over we have stressed that ‘[i]n expounding a statute, we must not be guided by a single sentence or member of a sentence, but look to the provisions of the whole law, and to its object and policy.’”  United States Nat. Bank of Ore. v. Independent Ins. Agents of America, Inc., 508 U.S. 439, 455 (1993).

“In expounding a statute, we must not be guided by a single sentence or member of a sentence, but look to the provisions of the whole law, and to its object and policy.”  The United States v. Boisdore’s Heirs, 49 U.S. 113, 122 (1850).

7. Amendments are meant to have a real and substantial effect—Stanley v. Department of Justice, 423 F.3d 1271, 1274 (Fed. 2005).

“When Congress acts to amend a statute, we presume it intends its amendment to have real and substantial effect.” Stone v. INS, 514 U.S. 386, 397 (1995).

8. Congress is presumed to know existing law so far as it is relevant to its enactment.

“We generally presume that Congress is knowledgeable about existing law pertinent to the legislation it enacts.”  Goodyear Atomic Corp. v. Miller, 486 U.S. 174 (1988).

9. Redundancy.

“The statute admits a reasonable construction which gives effect to all of its provisions.  In these circumstances we will not adopt a strained reading which renders one part a mere redundancy.”  Jarecke v. G.D. Searle and Company, 367 U.S. 303, 308 (1961).

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