Statutory interpretation involves the actions undertaken by a court in trying to understand and determine the meaning of a specific statute in order to ensure that the court applies the said statute in an accurate manner. There are cases whereby the phrases of statutes are straight forward and plain meaning; however, this is not always the case since ambiguity is a common occurrence in laws that are drafted using general terms (Singer, 2000). In addition, changes in future and present circumstances highlight the need and significance of statutory interpretation. In most cases, laws that were drafted to deal with one particular issue are likely to be applied in somewhat different scenarios in the future. It is such issues that require judges to come up with an amicable solution through statutory interpretation. In order to determine the meanings associated with statutes, judges make use of a number of methods and tools of statutory interpretation, which are referred to as the rules of statutory interpretation. Nevertheless, judges have restricted powers in going outside the established rules. To this end, the goal of this paper is to perform a critical examination of the rules of statutory interpretation and provide an analysis of the extent of power of the judges when interpreting statutes.
Statutory interpretation normally commences with examining the plain language of the legislation in order to ascertain its initial purpose. In order to ascertain the initial intent of the statute, courts have to examine the words used in the statue and apply the ordinary and usual meanings of these words. After examining the plain language of the statute but the statute’s meaning is still unclear, courts try to determine the purpose of the statute by scrutinizing legislative history as well as other sources. In addition, courts usually refrain from using an interpretation that is likely to lead to an absurd result that was not intended by the statute. Other rules used in statutory interpretation include checking for the internal consistency of the statute in the sense that there should be no section of the legislation that is inconsistent with other sections of the statute; the rule of lenity whereby a court ought to address the ambiguity in a statute in a manner that is in favor of the defendant; and courts can opt to look at the common usages words and phrases in the legislation and other aspects such as punctuation, parallel reasoning, dictionaries and existing case law (Singer, 2000). Other rules of statutory interpretation include the presumption that the statute will act purposely and intentionally when the statute omits language in one section and includes it in another section. Additionally, when the earlier versions of the statute contain a limiting language but remove the limiting language before its enforcement, it can be assumed that the legislature had no intention of incorporating the limiting language. It is imperative to note that statutes may be overly enough such that a single rule of interpretation may not be enough to eliminate all the ambiguity in the statute. In such instances, courts have the liberty to interpret the statutes in a manner they deem fit. After the interpretation of the statute, other courts refrain from repeating the same process again, but will embark on the enforcement of the statute that has been earlier interpreted. These rules of interpretation serve to limit the power of judges when interpreting statutes; as a result, judges are bound to operate within these rules, and only go beyond these rules when these rules cannot completely eliminate the ambiguity in a statute (Singer, 2000).
The various rules of statutory interpretation have been criticized on various grounds of undesirability, inconsistency and uncertainty in terms of what the rules say and how the courts apply these rules. A number of these criticisms target the rules in general whereas some target specific rules, particularly the plain meaning rules and rules related to the use of external aids in interpreting statutes. According to Singer (2000), statutory interpretation offers a cover for judges to hide in order to evade careful thinking that can address the problems presented before courts. Of the rules of statutory interpretation, the plain meaning rule is the most criticized whereas purposive approach and use of legislative history materials in interpreting statutes has been favored. Criticisms directed at the plain meaning rule relate to its inconsistent use, and on the basis that “plain meaning” is an inexistent concept. In this regard, Singer (2000) argues that all words are to some extent, ambiguous; therefore, there is no statute that can have a plain meaning. In this regard, courts embarking on the use of the plain meaning rule are only justifying their decisions basing on other reasons. Those criticizing the plain meaning rule assert that literal meanings is usually given preference at the cost of the fundamental purpose of the statute. As a result, the literal meaning of a statute may be inconsistent with the original meaning of the statute. The use of external aids in interpreting a statute has also been criticized on grounds that legislative materials ought not to be examined in interpreting statures when the language used in the statute is clear on its face. In other words, legislative materials should not be utilized in highlighting the ambiguity of legislation. Nevertheless, the use of legislative materials has been hailed playing a significant role in providing crucial insights with regard to the intent of the legislation (Singer, 2000).
In order to analyze the extent of the power of judges when interpreting statutes, it is imperative to examine the aims of statutory interpretation, which should outline the principles that should guide courts when dealing with issues of interpretation. The first principle relates to power distribution between courts and legislation. In this regard, courts have to acknowledge their limitations with regard to their powers in statute interpretation. Therefore, courts have to acknowledge the supremacy of the legislature in passing clear and constitutional laws. However, courts have supremacy with regard to the constitutional issues associated with legislation. The second principle determining the extent of powers of judges in statutory interpretation relates to responsibility distribution between courts and the legislature. In this regard, courts have to acknowledge the importance of the legislature as a vital law maker with regard to policy issues except on constitutional issues. Courts have to be aware that the legislature is in a better position to hear conflicting arguments and gather data regarding policy issues (Singer, 2000). In addition, the degree to which judges come up with laws, understanding and wisdom is paramount. In this regard, judges must be informed on the pertinent factual data required for effective policy making (Singer, 2000).
In conclusion, it is unlikely that the rules of statutory interpretation can function with optimal precision as expected. There are cases when a multiple rules of statutory interpretation still fail to eliminate all the ambiguity in a statute. In such cases, judges have the liberty to interpret the law on their own. Nevertheless, the extent of their power in interpreting laws is limited the purpose and principles that guide the statutory interpretation process, which include power distribution between courts and legislation, responsibility distribution between courts and the legislature, and that judges must be informed on the pertinent factual data required for effective policy making.