Applying Legislation: Interpreting Statutes

At this point you should have a good understanding of all sources of legislation – federal, state and municipal – and their print and online repositories. However, before you move on to using specific legislative repositories, you need to spend a few moments understanding why that step will not be your final research step. In common law countries, such as the United States, locating the applicable piece of legislation is only an intermediary step in doing statutory research.

It is well understood that once enacted, statutory provisions are binding on all activities within their boundaries. But, what does that mean? Theoretically, it means that in case of a dispute about issues which have been legislated upon, courts are required to apply the legislation. However, as shown here, applying legislative provisions can be a difficult process, and that is why statutory research ends with case law interpreting and applying the specific legislative provision which is the object of the research.

For example, when a former employee sued the Bureau of Indian Affairs alleging wrongful termination of his employment, the court had to apply the applicable statutory provision. In Bear Robe v. Parket, 270 F.3d 1192 (8th Cir. 2001), the court applied the “Indian Child Protection and Family Violence Prevention Act”-as amended on December 27, 2000, by the Omnibus Indian Advancement Act of 2000 – which stated that the employee’s previous conviction for voluntary manslaughter was an absolute bar to employment in a position that involved regular contact with Indian children. The Act did not say anything about the potential mitigating factor of the employee’s “successful employment at the school” (270 F.3d at 1194). However, the court interpreted the act as an absolute bar to employment. It explained its ruling stating that:

Congress has adopted a bright line rule that persons who fall within the Act’s proscriptions are not to be employed in positions that involve regular contact with children in federally funded Indian schools (270 F.3d at 1195).

Despite the fact that the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decided in this case that the statutory language was clear, a different interpretation of the provision is not improbable. In fact the plaintiff in Bear Robe started his lawsuit because he (or his attorney) did not think that the statutory provision was crystal clear. How is this ambiguity possible? What language constitutes the binding rule? In order to apply a statute to a specific factual situation, courts read the statutory provision, interpret it, and apply it accordingly.

Understanding this pragmatic aspect of applying the law helps legal researchers understand the nature of their enterprise and why despite its apparent nature “statutory research” it has to comprehend both statutory and case law research.

For those interested in more background analysis of this issue, the next few sections of the wiki will briefly explain the rules which guide judges in applying statutory provisions to concrete situations.

The interpretative //status quo// is cacophonous. Every judge and scholar has his own theory of how best to interpret statutes, and this diversity renders the interpretative project unpredictable. Nicholas Quinn Rosenkrantz, Federal Rules of Statutory Interpretation, 115 HARV. L. REV. 2085, 2088 (2002).

But, to the extent that there is some organization to this process, that organization is explained below.

The “Plain Meaning Rule”

Interpreting Statutes in Light of Their Legislative History

The Purposive Analysis: The “Social Purpose” Rule