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The legislative intent of a legislature in enacting legislation may sometimes be considered by the judiciary when interpreting the law. The judiciary may attempt to assess legislative intent where the law is ambiguous, or does not appear to directly or adequately address a particular issue, or when there appears to have been a legislative drafting error.

When a statute is clear and unambiguous, there is no reason to inquire into legislative intent. It is only when a statute could be interpreted in more than one way that legislative intent must be inferred from sources other than the actual text of the statute.

Sources of legislative intent[]

Courts frequently look to the following sources in attempting to determine the goals and purposes that the legislative body had in mind when it passed the law:

  • the text of the bill as proposed to the legislative body
  • amendments to the bill that were proposed and accepted or rejected
  • the record of hearings on the topic
  • legislative records or journals
  • speeches and floor debate made prior to the vote on the bill
  • legislative subcommittee minutes, factual findings, and/or reports
  • other relevant statutes which can be used to understand the definitions in the statute on question
  • other relevant statutes which indicate the limits of the statute in question
  • legislative files of the executive branch, such as the governor or president
  • case law prior to the statute or following it which demonstrates the problems the legislature was attempting to address with the bill, and
  • constitutional determinations (i.e. "Would Congress still have passed certain sections of a statute had it known about the constitutional invalidity of the other portions of the statute?").

Application of legislative intent[]

Courts have developed a number of principles for handling such evidence of legislative intent; for example, many courts have suggested that the comments of those opposing a bill under consideration should be treated with skepticism, on the principle that opponents of a bill may often exaggerate its practical consequences.

These principles of legislative intent often overlap with those principles of statutory construction that courts have developed to interpret ambiguous or incomplete legislation. As an example, the principle that courts should not interpret a statute to produce absurd or unintended results will often be informed by evidence of what the proponents of a bill stated about the objectives to be achieved by the statute.

See also[]

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