Academic journal article Missouri Law Review

Statutory Interpretation in Missouri

Academic journal article Missouri Law Review

Statutory Interpretation in Missouri

Article excerpt


Courts often cite canons of construction when interpreting contracts, statutes, and other legal texts. The canons are useful rules of thumb, often referred to as maxims, that suggest which meaning should be ascribed to a disputed word, phrase, or provision. (1) Several canons are policy driven and apply only to certain types of legal texts, but most reflect how people intuitively understand verbal expression and apply to all legal writings. (2)

Although countless secondary sources discuss the canons used to interpret statutory language, (3) few thoroughly focus on the canons cited by Missouri courts. (4) This four-part Note attempts to fill that void. Part II begins by organizing and concisely stating roughly thirty rules of statutory interpretation. Part III then contends that two of these principles--that the purpose of a statute should be furthered and that absurd outcomes should be avoided--often lend themselves to unpredictable results. Part IV concludes by suggesting one way this unpredictability could be minimized.


The majority of this Note is devoted to this Part. The material that follows is divided into two subparts. Subpart A discusses principles routinely cited by the Supreme Court of Missouri when it interprets statutes. To provide an overview, these rules address legislative intent, statutory purpose, ambiguity, "plain" meaning, and the application of the canons. Subpart B collects roughly thirty canons and organizes them according to their relationship to semantics, syntax, context, judicial expectations, and private and governmental rights.

A. Basic Rules of Statutory Interpretation

The Supreme Court of Missouri almost always cites a handful of principles when interpreting statutes. Normally, the court first explains that it must discern legislative intent from the text and interpret the statute to further that intent. (5) This rule is nearly identical to the presumption against ineffectiveness, which provides that an interpretation furthering the purpose of a statute should be favored. (6) For purposes of this Note, these rules are considered interchangeable because it is difficult to identify a situation in which both would yield different outcomes. (7)

After the court explains that it must interpret statutory language to further legislative intent, it usually sets forth the standard for determining whether a statute is ambiguous. The court has explained that a text is unambiguous if a person of ordinary intelligence would find its meaning plain and clear. (8) On the other hand, a text is ambiguous only if its language "is subject to more than one reasonable interpretation." (9)

The court often cites the plain meaning rule as well: "If the intent of the legislature is clear and unambiguous, by giving the language used in the statute its plain and ordinary meaning, then we are bound by that intent and cannot resort to any statutory construction in interpreting the statute." (10) In other words, the court's conclusion that a text is unambiguous ends the inquiry and bars arguments based on anything beyond the text of the statute. (11)

If the text is ambiguous, the canons should be used to identify the legislature's intended outcome. (12) Because different canons often support different results, (13) courts essentially apply a balancing test. Although outcome X may be supported by one canon, outcome Y may carry the day based on several other canons. At this stage, non-textual evidence such as the precise harm that inspired legislative action, the general circumstances surrounding the enactment of a statute, and legislative history may also be used to shed light on legislative intent. (14) After the court discusses these principles, it typically cites canons applicable to the statute at issue.

B. Canons of Statutory Interpretation

Before delving into the canons, a comment regarding their organization might be helpful. …

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