A guide to reading and interpreting statutes

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How to Read Statutes

Two Parts:

Reading statutes can sometimes be difficult. Not only are they hard to find, but statutes are often written in a confusing way. They can be long and awkwardly worded, referring to other statutes that are hard to find. In order to read a statute properly, you need to define all of the key terms and then read it through several times. If you still do not understand the statute, you should seek legal help.


Finding Statutes

  1. Perform an online search.You can begin any search for a statute by checking to see if it has been posted online. Often, states and localities will post their statutes on their websites. To find them, you should perform a basic web search.
    • Open a web browser and type in “statute” and then the subject matter you are looking for.
    • For example, if you want to find out the city’s law on a dog barking at night, type “statute dog bark” and then your city.
  2. Search MuniCode.com.Local ordinances are often difficult to find. However, you can visit MuniCode.com and browse. Select your state and then select the town or city from the alphabetical list.
    • You can also find municipal codes by visiting your town clerk’s office and asking if you can get a copy.
  3. Visit a law library.If you can’t find a statute online, then you might want to visit a local law library and ask the librarian for help. Statutes should be kept in bound volumes. Law libraries can usually be found at your local county courthouse. If your county does not have a library, then ask the court clerk where the nearest law library is located.
    • You can find your local courthouse by looking in the phone book or by searching online.
    • At the law library, look for an Annotated Code. This version of statutes will include information on court cases that interpreted the statute.Once a court case interprets an aspect of the statute, then that interpretation will control future applications of the law. For this reason, you should try to see the annotated version of a law.
  4. Use a legal search engine.Lawyers, law students, and paralegals should all have access to either Westlaw or LexisNexis. You can find the text of a statute on these search engines in a couple of ways:
    • Click on a hyperlink. If you are reading a court opinion, then any referenced statute should be hyperlinked. Clicking on the link will take you to the statute.
    • You can also search by clicking on “Statutes and Legislation.” You then can search by search term, e.g., “Rules of Evidence.” In Lexis, the Chapter Heading will be given, along with the highlighted text. Read the heading to see if it relates to your search.
    • Don’t forget to check for annotations. The annotations should appear underneath the statutory text. By reading the annotations, you can find court opinions that define and apply the statute.

Reading Statutes

  1. Recognize the organization of statutes.Statutes are often grouped by subject matter. For example, there will be a section for Rules of Evidence or a section for Housing. You should be able to recognize the layout of a section:
    • Title
    • Subtitle
    • Chapter
    • Subchapter
    • Part
  2. Find the statutory definitions.You should always look for any “Definition” section. Usually, these come at the front of the statutory section. Sometimes, even common words like “firearm” can be given specific definitions by the legislature. You should find out the statutory meaning of words since these will often have a specific meaning.
    • Also circle any words that you do not understand. Don’t skip anything. You need to understand every sentence in the relevant section of the statute.
    • After circling words you don’t know, look them up in a dictionary. Once you have defined all words, read the statute another couple of times.
  3. Understand common terms.Statutes often use the words “shall” and “may.” Their meaning is different. For example, when a statute states that you “shall” do something, then the action is obligatory. However, where “may” is used, then you have discretion.
    • Also pay attention to the word “notwithstanding.” It means “in spite of” and is used to create exceptions to the rule.For example, a law may state that all dogs must be registered with the city. However, it might create an exception: “Notwithstanding the registration requirement, all dog owners have a 60 day grace period to register.”
    • Understand “if…then” constructions. A statutory provision may only apply if a certain condition has been satisfied. For example, a statute may say, “If a party to a lawsuit requests a jury, then each party shall contribute 0 in costs.” Here, a party will only need to pay 0 if one of the parties requests a jury.
  4. Pay attention to “fuzzy” words.Some words, like “reasonable” or “good cause,” will be impossible to define simply by looking at the statute. Even if these terms are included in the definitions, the real meaning will be determined on a case-by-case basis.
    • In this situation, you need to find an annotated version of the statute so that you can see what situations have qualified as “reasonable” or as a “good cause.”
  5. Check for cross-references.A statute might reference another statute. By doing so, the statute incorporates the meaning of the referenced statute. Accordingly, you will need to find all statutes referenced and read them.
    • Finding cross-references should be easy if you search using Lexis or Westlaw. Simply click on the hyperlink.
    • If you are searching for statutes using books, then write down the title and subtitle numbers and then find the relevant bound volume of statutes. Make sure to photocopy all relevant sections. Photocopies are easier to access than bulky books. You can also highlight or make notes on your photocopies.
  6. Apply the plain meaning.Once you understand the statutory definitions, read it straight through. You should read every statute at least three times so that you can understand it fully.Be sure to read more than just the relevant part. Also, read the subchapter and chapter so that you understand the context for the statute.
    • If the statute’s meaning is “plain,” then that meaning will be the meaning that a court applies.
    • Nevertheless, you should avoid absurdity. A court will not apply a statute if it leads to an absurd result.For example, a statute may state, “No animals are allowed in the hospital.” However, it would be absurd to apply the statute to humans, who are technically animals.
  7. Research legislative history.Understand that not all statutes are plain. If all statutes were clear, there would be fewer lawyers. The law is as much an art as a science. If a statute is vague or ambiguous, then you will need to anticipate how a judge would apply the statute. This is not always easy; however, keep the following in mind:
    • Try to figure out the law’s purpose.Most laws are passed to address a social problem, such as drug use or other crimes, or to provide a framework for how government agencies are to act. You should try to figure out the purpose of the law. If what you want to do does not violate the law’s purpose, then you have a strong argument that the statute doesn’t apply to you.
    • Read the legislative history. This information can be difficult to find. Nevertheless, read newspaper accounts from the time period when the legislation was considered and then passed. You will often find quotes from legislators stating why they are passing the law. This can help establish the law’s purpose.
  8. Meet with a lawyer.A qualified attorney can give you an educated opinion as to how a government official or a court will interpret a statute. You can explain the facts of your situation and the lawyer can advise whether or not your proposed conduct violates the law.
    • You might worry about the costs of an attorney. However, realize that many states now allow lawyers to offer “limited scope representation.” Under this arrangement, the lawyer will not take over your entire case. Instead, he or she will only do the tasks you assign. For example, the lawyer might offer advice for a flat fee.
    • If you are interested in this arrangement, then ask whether the attorney offers limited scope representation when you call for a consultation.

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