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Summer Legal Research Tips: Statutory Law

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Introduction to Statutory Law

Statutory laws are the written laws that are passed by legislative bodies.

In most jurisdictions in the United States, a law starts out as a bill proposed by a member of a legislature. Once proposed, a bill may go through several rounds of committee discussion, rewrites, hearings, debates and votes. All of this material forms the law's 'legislative history' and may be useful when researching the history and purpose of a particular law.

If a bill makes it through the entire process and is passed by the legislature and approved by the executive branch, the bill becomes a law. These laws are usually published individually as they are passed. In many jurisdictions, laws are also organized into "codes" that set out all the laws of a jurisdiction by subject.

Canons on Extrisic Legislative Sources

In addition to the more commonly known textual cannons. Several cannons of construction used by the courts address the application of extrinsic legislative materials. This interpretive guidance can be useful, but remember, it is just guidance. Below is a list of the extrinsic legislative cannons recognized by the Rehnquist Court, along with citations to cases which discussed/ utilized the cannon.

  • Consider legislative history if the statute is ambiguous. Wisconsin Pub. Intervenor v. Mortier, 501 U.S. 597 (1991).
  • Interpret provisions consistent with subsequent statutory amendments. Sullivan v. Finkelstein, 496 U.S. 617 (1990).
  • Be careful when considering subsequent legislative discussions. Compare, Sullivan v. Finkelstein, 496 U.S. 617 (1990) and Musick, Peeler, & Garrett v. Employers Ins. of Wausau, 113 S. Ct. 2085 (1993).
  • Committee Reports are authoritative legislative history, but cannot trump a textual plain meaning and should not be relied on if they are imprecise. Johnson v. DeGrandy, 114 S. Ct. 2647 (1994); Southwest Marine, Inc. v. Gizoni, 112 S. Ct. 486 (1991).
  • Committee Report language that cannot be tied to a specific statutory provision cannot be credited to that provision. Shannon v. United States, 114 S. Ct. 2419 (1994).
  • House and Senate Reports which are inconsistent with each other should be discounted. Moreau v. Klevenhagen, 113 S. Ct. 1905 (1993).
  • There is a presumption against an interpretation considered and rejected by floor vote of a chamber of Congress or committee. Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., 114 S. Ct. 1164 (1994).
  • Floor Statements can be used to confirm apparent meaning. Department of Revenue v. ACF Indus., Inc. 114 S. Ct. 843 (1994).
  • Contemporaneous and subsequent understandings of a statutory scheme (including understandings by the President and Department of Justice) may sometimes be admissible. Hagan v. Utah, 114 S. Ct. 958 (1994); Darby v. Cisneros, 113 S. Ct. 2539 (1993).
  • The "dog didn't bark" cannon: Presumption that prior legal rule should be retained if no one in the legislative deliberations even mentioned the rule or discussed any changes in the rule. Chisom v. Roemer, 501 U.S. 380 (1991).