Statutory interpretation Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Judicial determining of the meaning of statutes enacted by a legislature.

Much federal and state law is based on statutes enacted by legislatures. Indeed, because little federal common law exists, almost all federal law except constitutional law is statutory. Article I of the Constitution states that a federal statute must be approved by a majority of the House of Representatives and of the Senate, then be signed by the president. If the proposed statute is vetoed by the president, it can still become law if two-thirds of both the House and the Senate vote to enact it.

Statutes cannot be completely clear in all circumstances, and many statutes are quite vague and do not precisely specify legal rights and responsibilities. Therefore, courts must interpret statutes in deciding cases. The Supreme Court is the final authority on the meaning of federal statutes; however, if Congress and the president disagree with the Court’s interpretation of a statute, they can amend it so as to nullify the Court’s interpretation. The Supreme Court, however, is not the ultimate arbiter of the meaning of state statutes. This task is performed by state supreme courts. Many, perhaps even a majority, of the cases that reach the Supreme Court from the federal courts involve the interpretation of federal statutes rather than the Constitution.

The approaches to interpreting statutes can be sorted into three major categories: textualism, intentionalism, and purposivism. Textualism focuses on the ordinary meaning of the words used in the statute. Intentionalism attempts to find the collective “intent” of the legislators who enacted the statute, often by consulting the legislative history of the statute, that is, the various documents produced when the legislature was considering the statute. Purposivism requires judges to determine the general purpose of the statute and adopt interpretations that further the statute’s general purpose. From its inception, the Supreme Court has generally rejected textualism. After its decision in Rector of Holy Trinity Church v. United States[case]Rector of Holy Trinity Church v. United States[Rector of Holy Trinity Church v. United States] (1892), the Court increasingly relied on legislative history. In the late 1980’s and the 1990’s, Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas vigorously argued that the Court should adopt a textualism approach and disregard legislative history when interpreting statutes.

Further Reading
  • Mikva, Abner J., and Eric Lane. An Introduction to Statutory Interpretation and the Legislative Process. New York: Aspen Law & Business, 1997.
  • Oleszek, Walter J. Congressional Procedures and the Policy Process. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1996.
  • Popkin, William D. Materials on Legislation: Political Language and the Political Process. Westbury, N.Y.: Foundation Press, 1997.
  • Scalia, Antonin. A Matter of Interpretation: Federal Courts and the Law--An Essay. Edited by Amy Gutmann. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997.
  • Watry, Ruth Ann. Administrative Statutory Interpretation: The Aftermath of “Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council.” New York: LFB Scholarly Publications, 2002.

Common law

Original intent

Scalia, Antonin

Stewart, Potter

Thomas, Clarence

Categories: History Content