United States v. Riverside Bayview Homes
Secondary Discussion Question 6
What principle(s) of statutory interpretation is (are) at issue in Section II of the opinion?
This is a specific manifestation of a general principle of statutory interpretation: a court should narrowly interpret a statute if a broad interpretation would render the statute unconstitutional. This principle of interpretation rests on the presumption that legislatures don't deliberately enact unconstitutional statutes; a court gives effect to this presumed legislative intent by interpreting statutes (narrowly) so as to preserve their validity. This is a fairly straight-forward idea.
Nonetheless, the idea implies a few things about relations between the legislature and the judiciary. A legislature that acts with an awareness of this rule of interpretation can be fairly sloppy: so long as the legislature sets out language that can somehow be interpreted in a manner that makes the statute constitutional, the courts will do so. The legislature can therefore leave to the courts both the determination of what is constitutional and the details of how to interpret the statutory language so as to make it constitutional. Perhaps this is a useful division of labor. Legislatures often speak in broad, prospective terms and leave it to the courts to work out the details. One may characterize the relationship between the legislature and administrative agencies in the same way, as the deference given in this very case to an agency's interpetation of a statute illustrates.
One might also note that this rule of interpretation creates a certain amount of maneuvering room for legislatures to garner political credit with their constituents. If a legislature enacts a fairly broad provision, it can take credit for its sweeping pronouncement immediately. If a court later narrows that pronouncement to preserve the constitutionality of the statute, the general public may no longer be focused on that issue, or may pay less attention to what happens in an appellate opinion than it did to what happened in the media-rich environment of the legislature. And even if the public is still paying attention, the legislature can note that it did the best that it could and point a finger of blame at the courts.
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This page was last updated on 03/10/99.