by Julie Pelegrin
Editor’s Note: This week’s article is the sixth in our series on statutory construction. For previous installments, click on “statutory construction” in the tag cloud.
If the language of a statute is not plain, the court will try to interpret it by applying various presumptions: The statute is intended to be constitutional; the interpretation should lead to a just and reasonable, not absurd, result; every word matters and should be read in context; the interpretation should not require an impossible task; and the interpretation should benefit the public interest.
Taking all of these presumptions into consideration, the court will next look to the legislative intent: What did the General Assembly intend to accomplish by passing the statute?
Section 2-4-203, C.R.S., specifies several items the court may consider in trying to interpret an ambiguous statute:
In Colorado, the legislative history is somewhat sparse. The General Assembly does not generate long committee reports that explain the intent and research behind each bill as Congress does. In Colorado, the legislative history consists of the various versions of the bill and the amendments considered in committee and on second and third reading. Legislative history also includes the testimony offered on the bill in committee and the debates on the bill. The court may consider witnesses’ and the bill sponsor’s explanations of a bill and what the bill is intended to accomplish.
In interpreting an ambiguous statute, the court may also consider the General Assembly’s intent in passing the statute. To understand legislative intent, the court looks to any legislative declarations or statements of legislative intent that were passed with the statute. Although legislative declarations are not binding on a court, they do provide some indication of what the statute is supposed to mean and how it should be applied.
The court may also consider the title of the bill that created or amended the ambiguous statute. In interpreting a workers’ compensation provision, the Colorado Supreme Court held that the statute should be read the same way that certain recommendations by a national commission on workers’ compensation laws were read, because the title of the bill that amended the statute was “Concerning Workmen’s Compensation, and Providing Extended Coverage Necessary to Conform to Essential Recommendations of the National Commission on State Workmen’s Compensation Laws….”
A court may also consider later legislation that amends the underlying statute the court is trying to interpret, but only if the later legislation passes. If the General Assembly introduces a bill to clarify a statute, but the bill doesn’t pass, the court does not consider the intended clarification in interpreting the statute. If the bill does pass, however, it is entitled to “great weight” in construing the original statute.
Circumstances of Legislation
A court may also look to the circumstances that surrounded the adoption of the statute. This is similar to considering the legislative history in that the court considers the explanation a sponsor provides for why he or she introduced a bill. The court may also look at who testified for or against a bill as some indication of the persons the bill was intended to affect. For example, in Gleason v. Becker-Johnson Associates, the court found that a statute was intended to apply to the persons involved in constructing a building, not persons who later inspected the finished building, partly because all of the witnesses were builders, architects, and engineers.
Interpretation by an Administrative Agency
The court will consider how an administrative agency interprets legislation. If an administrative agency is responsible for implementing a statute, and the agency adopts rules or policies that define terms or explain how the agency will apply the statute, a court will give deference to the agency’s interpretation in deciding what the statute means. But the court is not required to follow an agency’s interpretation, and the court will not follow the agency interpretation if it contradicts the plain language of the statute.
The Common Law or Similar Statutes
When interpreting an ambiguous statute, the court may consider how statutes on related or similar subjects are interpreted. The court may also look to the common law on the same subject to help interpret an unclear statute.
The common law is the collection of rules of action and principles relating to the government and the security of persons and property that have arisen from usage and customs over centuries and from appellate court decisions that apply and interpret these rules and principles. The statutes are assumed to follow the common law. If the General Assembly intends for a statute to abrogate or change rights that are available under the common law, the statute must expressly state or very clearly imply that intent.
Interpretation Favors the Person Intended to Benefit
Finally, if the court has gone through the full analysis and it still isn’t sure what the statute means, as a last resort the court will generally resolve the ambiguity in favor of the person or party that the statute is supposed to benefit – consider it the legal equivalent of “tie goes to the runner.” For example:
- Interpretation of ambiguous tax statutes favors the taxpayer;
- Interpretation of ambiguous pension or retirement fund statutes favors the employee;
- Interpretation of ambiguous criminal law statutes favors the defendant; and
- Interpretation of ambiguous workers’ compensation statutes favors the claimant.