interpreting law

Most of the concepts applicable to interpreting governing documents applies to interpreting statutes.  See also Index, interpreting governing documents.

Individual Terms - Plain Meaning, Dictionary Definitions. 

Utah Code § 68-3-11 provides

Words and phrases are to be construed according to the context and the approved usage of the language; but technical words and phrases, and such others as have acquired a peculiar and appropriate meaning in law, or are defined by statute, are to be construed according to such peculiar and appropriate meaning or definition. 

The singular includes the plural, and the plural includes the singular.  A word used in one gender includes the other gender. A word used in the present tense includes the future tense.  See § 68-3-12(1) regarding the use of "include" or "including," "may," "may not," "must," and "shall" in statutes.

When a term is not expressly defined in the statute and "does not appear to be a technical term of art, we construe it to partake of the ordinary meaning the word would have to a reasonable person familiar with the usage and context of the language in question."  Hi-Country Prop. Rights Grp. v. Emmer, 2013 UT 33, ¶ 18, 304 P.3d 851 (unanimous opinion) (only seeking to determine the ordinary meaning of the term at issue after finding that the "term is not expressly defined in the Act, and does not appear to be a technical term of art") (footnote omitted); State v. Navaro, 83 Utah 6, 26 P.2d 955, 956 (1933) ("Under the ordinary canons of construction of statutes we are required to give the word its plain, natural, ordinary, and commonly understood meaning, in the absence of any statutory or well-established technical meaning, unless it is plain from the statute that a different meaning is intended.").

Nontechnical words are generally "given the meaning which they have for laymen in ... daily usage."  O'Dea v. Olea, 2009 UT 46, ¶ 32, 217 P.3d 704.  "The starting point for discerning such meaning is the dictionary.  A dictionary is useful in cataloging a range of possible meanings that a statutory term may bear."  Hi-Country at ¶ 19.  "Such a record, however, will often fail to dictate what meaning a word must bear in a particular context.  That question will often require further refinement—of selecting the best meaning among a range of options, based on other indicators of meaning evident in the context of the statute (including, particularly, the structure and language of the statutory scheme)." id.

In the Context of the Whole.  The Utah Supreme Court has said, "But we do not interpret the 'plain meaning' of a statutory term in isolation.  Under our rules of statutory construction, we must give effect to every provision of a statute and avoid an interpretation that will render portions of a statute inoperative.  To achieve this goal, we construe the provision at issue with every other part or section so as to produce a harmonious whole."  Warne v. Warne, 2012 UT 13, ¶¶ 35, 36, 275 P.3d 238  (internal quotation marks omitted).  See also, Reedeker v. Salisbury, 952 P.2d 577 at 585 (1998) (a statute is to "be construed so that effect is given to all its provisions, so that no part will be inoperative or superfluous, void or insignificant, and so that one section will not destroy another.").

Intent of Legislature; Purpose of Statute.  A central goal of courts in statutory interpretation is effectuating the intent of the Legislature.  See, e.g., L.G. v. State (In re A.T.), 2015 UT 41, ¶ 16, 353 P.3d 131 ("With any question of statutory interpretation, our primary goal is to effectuate the intent of the Legislature.").  To ascertain that intent, a court looks "first to the text of the statute within its context," beginning with the plain language of the provision at issue in a "broader effort to ascertain the intent of the Legislature disclosed by the language of the act as a whole, the act's operation, and its purpose." State v. Rasabout, 2015 UT 72, ¶ 10, 356 P.3d 1258.

However, "where the language of the statute is clear, that language controls and cannot be overridden by a presumed statutory purpose."  VCS, Inc. v. Utah Cmty. Bank, 2012 UT 89, ¶ 23, 293 P.3d 290.  The purpose of a statute plays a role in statutory interpretation only where "the language of a statute is ambiguous."  See id. at ¶ 22, citing Alliant Techsystems, Inc. v. Salt Lake Cnty. Bd. of Equalization, 2012 UT 4, ¶ 21, 270 P.3d 441.  

Later Enactments.  A later change or enactment is not given more weight than earlier provisions.  See e.g., Reedeker v. Salisbury, 952 P.2d at  586 (stating, "We assume "that whenever the legislature enacts a provision it has in mind previous statutes relating to the same subject matter, wherefore it is held that in the absence of any express repeal or amendment therein, the new provision was enacted in accord with the legislative policy embodied in those prior statutes, and they all should be construed together.").

All Parts Given Meaning.

Statutory enactments are to be construed as to render all parts thereof relevant and meaningful.  Likewise, we are compelled to give the statutory language meaning and to assume that each term in the statute was used advisedly . . . unless such a reading is unreasonably confused or inoperable. We will avoid an interpretation which renders portions of, or words in, a statute superfluous or inoperative.

Labelle v. McKay Dee Hosp. Ctr., 2004 UT 15, ¶ 16, 89 P.3d 113.

Independent Meaning.  The presumption of independent meaning (and/or its converse, the presumption against surplusage) "presumes that each provision of a statute has meaning independent of all others.  It expresses, in other words, a reluctance to attribute to the legislature the intent to adopt a nullity—to enact a provision that says nothing not already stated elsewhere."  Lancer Ins v. Lake Shore Motor, 2017 UT 8 at ¶ 13.  However, "legislation may include surplus terms aimed at underscoring an important point.  With that in mind, courts may view a few isolated words as simply reiterating what is stated elsewhere—as a reinforcement in an abundance of caution."  Id. at ¶ 14.

Interpreting a statute so as to allow possible exceptions to swallow a particular requirement is an outcome that runs afoul of the settled canon of preserving independent meaning for all statutory provisions.  See VCS, Inc. v. Utah Cmty. Bank, 2012 UT 89, ¶ 18, 293 P.3d 290.

Statutes and Cases:

(For reference: 57-8 is the Condo Act, 57-8a is the Community Association Act, 16-6a is the Nonprofit Act)

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