Interpreting a Statute

Such simple cases are common, but they are also boring. Things get much more difficult and interesting when a statute is vague, so that it is not clear whether the statute applies to the case at issue. Then the statute must be in- terpreted. We need some way to tell more precisely what the law prohibits and what it allows.

The first step in interpreting a statute is to look carefully at the words in the statute and their literal meanings. But the courts must often look beyond the mere words of the statute. This need arises when the words are unclear and when they lead to absurd results. For example, suppose a city council passes an ordinance requiring zoos to provide clean, dry cages for all mammals. This works fine until one zoo puts a whale in its aquarium. The whale would be in trouble if the courts stuck to the words of the ordinance. Fortunately, the courts can also consider the intentions of the legislators, which can be gleaned from their debates about the law. Of course, the city council might not have thought at all about whales, or they might have thought that whales are fish instead of mammals. Thus, if their intentions are what the legislators consciously had in mind, then we also need to consider the deeper, more general purpose of the legislators—the goal they were trying to reach or the moral outlook they were trying to express. This purpose is revealed by the wider historical context and by other laws made by the same legislature. In our example, the purpose of the statute was obviously to provide a healthy environment for mammals in zoos. This purpose is best served by interpreting the ordinance so that it does not re- quire dry cages for whales.

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