There are several instances when a court must interpret and apply a statutory provision. The statutes and common law provide several rules that guide the courts when they interpret a statute. Following are some of the guides that the courts most often use.
The court is bound to apply the plain language of a statute to accomplish the intent of the General Assembly. If the language is clear and unambiguous, the court will not look to rules of construction or to legislative history; it will simply apply the language. But, if applying the plain language leads to an absurd result or a result that is contrary to the obvious intent of the General Assembly, or if the language is ambiguous, then the court will apply rules of statutory interpretation to construe the statute.
If a statute is ambiguous, the court will consider the legislative history of the statute to try to discern the legislature's intent in enacting the statute. Legislative history may include the bill file, if released by the bill sponsor, and the recorded debates and comments concerning the bill that were made in committee hearings and on second and third reading.
Statutes are presumed to be constitutional. If a statute can be interpreted two ways — one of which is constitutional and the other unconstitutional — the court will choose the constitutional interpretation. The party in a lawsuit that is claiming that a law is unconstitutional has the burden of proving unconstitutionality beyond a reasonable doubt.
Statutes are to be read as a whole, in context, and, if possible, the court is to give effect to every word of the statute. The court is bound to give consistent, harmonious, and sensible effect to all of the parts of a statute, to the extent possible.
Statutes are presumed to apply prospectively, that is, to events that occur after the statute takes effect. In some circumstances, the General Assembly can specify that a bill should apply to events that occurred before the bill passed, in which case the presumption does not apply.
Harmonizing to Avoid Conflicts
To the extent possible, statutes should be harmonized and not read as creating a conflict. However, a conflict may exist if one statute allows what another prohibits or prohibits what another allows.
If there is a conflict between statutes:
- The statute that most recently took effect ("later in time") controls. If there's a conflict between two statutory provisions and one of the provisions took effect July 1, 2013, and the other took effect July 1, 2014, the court will apply the one that took effect in 2014. If both provisions took effect on the same date, then the court will apply the one that the Governor signed last.
- The specific controls over the general. If there's a conflict between two statutory provisions — one of them a general statement and the other a specific statement — the court will apply the more specific statement as an exception to the general statement. But, if the general statute was enacted more recently and it appears that the General Assembly intended the general statute to apply, the court will apply the more general statute.
When interpreting an ambiguous statute, there are several canons that a court may apply:
- In pari materia ("upon the same matter or subject"). If a statute is ambiguous, the court may apply this canon and look to the rest of the statute, or the surrounding statutes, to determine the meaning of the ambiguous statute.
- Ejusdim generis ("of the same kind, class, or nature"). If the statute lists certain things and the list ends with a general statement to include other things (a "catch-all"), the court will assume that the general statement only includes things that are similar to the items listed. For example, if a statute says that "cars, motorcycles, scooters, and other motorized vehicles must be licensed", the court probably will not require boats, trains, or planes to be licensed. But the court may require a person to license his or her e-bike.
- Expressio unius est exclusio alterius ("the express mention of one thing excludes all others"). When a statute includes a list of specific items, that list is presumed to be exclusive; the statute applies only to the listed items and not to others. But if the list starts with a phrase like "at a minimum" or "including" or "such as" or ends with a general catch-all term, the court will probably interpret the list as illustrating the types of things the statute applies to and not as an exclusive list.