How Courts Use Legislative Intent to Establish the Meaning of a Law

When courts and administrative agencies are called upon to interpret existing law, they sometimes refer to legislative intent to help them understand the original purpose of the law. If the meaning of a statute is ambiguous or if it can be interpreted in more than one way, the courts refer to the history and enactment of that legislation for greater clarity. In such cases they may look at legislative news, debates on the floor, and other materials to determine the correct application of the law.

What is legislative intent?
Sometimes courts, attorneys, and government agencies find discrepancies and ambiguities in the way laws are written. These could be federal or state statutes. Sometimes the language of the law is capable of more than one interpretation, or its application to a particular case is not clear. In such cases, the courts look beyond the actual text of the law to the legislative intent behind it.
Courts have been using the principle of legislative intent for over a hundred years to clarify the meaning and application of statutes and regulations, where those are ambiguous. The circumstances in which a law is enacted or amended are held to provide greater validity about its meaning and intent.

How is legislative intent established?
Statutory history is a guide to legislative intent. To determine the original meaning of the law, courts, attorneys, and agencies refer to the history of the enactment of the law. They may consider documentation concerning the drafting of the law, its enactment, and amendments that were brought about. They may also look at news reporting about the legislation at the time of its drafting and enactment, public statements by legislators concerning the legislation, and floor debates.
Having access to the relevant documentation is essential for this exercise. Legislative research services offer access to documentation pertaining to federal and state laws as well as regulations and administrative code sections. In many cases, they can track down legislative and administrative documentation going back to the 1700s. Legislative news is another important source for determining legislative intent.

Legislative news and history are important not only for historians and researchers. They play an important part in establishing legislative intent, when courts, attorney, and agencies are called upon to establish the meaning and application of laws and statutes that have been worded ambiguously.

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