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What is Statutory Interpretation?

By Christy Bieber
Updated May 16, 2024
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Statutory interpretation refers to the process by which a court looks at a statute and determines what it means. A statute, which is a bill or law passed by the legislature, imposes obligations and rules on the people. Statutes, however, although they make the law, may be open to interpretation and have ambiguities. Statutory interpretation is the process of resolving those ambiguities and deciding how a particular bill or law will apply in a particular case.

Assume, for example, that a statute mandates that all vehicles must be registered with the department of motor vehicles. If the statute does not define vehicles, then it will have to be interpreted if questions arise. A person driving a motorcycle might be pulled over and the police may try to fine him if his motorcycle is not registered with the DMV. If that individual argued to the court that a motorcycle is not a "vehicle," then the court would have to interpret the statute to determine what the legislature meant by vehicle and whether the motorcycle fell within that definition and was covered by the statute.

There are numerous rules of statutory interpretation. The first rule and most important rule is the rule dealing with the statute's plain language. This rule essentially states that the statute means what it says. If, for example, the statute says "vehicles," then the court is going to assume it means vehicles and not "planes" or something else.

Other rules of statutory interpretation dictate that the court first look within the "four walls" of the statute to interpret it. This means that if it didn't define vehicle in the particular sentence, but it defined it four sentences up or on a different paragraph or page in the statute, then the court will apply the meaning that it used elsewhere. In other words, the language used is assumed to mean the same thing throughout the whole piece of legislation.

Other rules also apply to guide the court in statutory interpretation. For example, the court will use generally accepted definitions, so if every other statute the legislature has ever written defines vehicle one way, the new statute will also define vehicle in that same way. The court will also look to the legislative history — the discussion surrounding the passage of the bill or law — to determine meaning. In general, this and all other steps of the process of interpreting a statute are designed to ensure that the statute is enforced and applied in the way in which the legislature intended.

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Discussion Comments
By discographer — On Jan 14, 2013

I think that sometimes laws are made with vague language on purpose so that it can be interpreted later on. I think that this makes statues flexible because it can be interpreted according to the circumstances of that time.

I know that some law makers get annoyed with the vagueness of some statute language. It's not easy to try to figure what people meant, especially if a statute was made a long time ago.

But I think it has many advantages. It makes the statute applicable for the long term. A very detailed statute will not be applicable in every case and it's not possible to make a different statute for each circumstance. It's better, more flexible and logical to make statutes a little vague, so that it can be interpreted according to the case at hand. It leads to dynamic statutory interpretation. This is my opinion anyway.

By stoneMason — On Jan 13, 2013

@burcidi-- I think that a statute should be interpreted by the court that passes the law. So if the statutes was made by a local court, it should be interpreted by that court.

However, the Supreme Court is unique in that it can interpret any law. That's actually the Supreme Court's job-- legislation and statutory interpretation. Sometimes cases are appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court for their interpretation of statutes and decision. Sometimes the Supreme Court decides to take up a case on their own because they feel that it is important.

By burcidi — On Jan 13, 2013

Can any court-- local and state court-- do statutory interpretations?

Can the Supreme Court interpret statutes?

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