In the news you often read about differing philosophies of judicial interpretation, especially when important cases are decided (like several recent US Supreme Court decisions). I recently browsed through a book by Antonin Scalia in which he outlines a number of specific principles he endorses and does not endorse, with citations to earlier case law. Apparently there is some debate about the merits of such principles and how (or whether) judicial interpretation of legislation comports with legislators' understanding of what they are doing.

It is clear that many of these "canons" can be overridden on a per-law basis by including language in the law that explicitly goes against some judicial principle that would otherwise apply. However, my question is, are the principles themselves subject to legislative control in a broader sense? Can legislatures pass "meta-laws" which define how other laws are to be intepreted? For instance, could the US Congress pass a law saying "Wherever ambiguity arises in statutory interpretation, the statute in question shall be understood as to favor the least powerful party in a dispute"? Or "No special deference shall be given to interpretation of statute by administrative agencies" (i.e., to curtail Chevron deference)? Or more generally, can a legislature pass a law saying "The law shall be understood as X", where X is some principle of intepretation that is not specific to the law in which it is contained, but is meant to constrain interpretations of all other laws (or some subset of other laws)? Would such laws be valid?

I'm interested mostly in the situation in the US, but would be interested to know how the issue could play out in different countires, or in particular US states.

  • 4
    Of course, the problem with all such "Interpretation Acts" is that they themselves have to be interpreted by the judiciary :)
    – Dale M
    Commented Jul 1, 2015 at 0:17

2 Answers 2


Yes, legislative bodies can pass legislation that constrains the interpretation of the rest of their legislation.

In the U.S., see 1 U.S.C §1-8.

In Canada, see The Interpretation Act.

In British Columbia, see The Interpretation Act.

As an example of a back-and-forth between the courts and congress regarding a setting a standard of review, consider the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Summarizing from Holt v. Hobbs 574 U. S. ____ (2015):

  • In Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of Ore. v. Smith, 494 U. S. 872 (1990), the Supreme Court held that "neutral, generally applicable laws that incidentally burden the exercise of religion usually do not violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment".
  • Congress desired a stricter test that prohibited the burdening of religion regardless of whether the laws are neutral or generally applicable.
  • Congress passed RFRA in 1993, which required that "[g]overnment shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, unless the government demonstrates that application of the burden to the person — (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest".

RFRA was passed with the goal of setting the standard of review for all other legislation that burdens a person's exercise of religion. Without RFRA, the standard of review would have been that used in Smith, based solely on First Amendment protections. With RFRA, the standard of review became stronger, basically strict scrutiny.

An example of Congress setting the factors to be used in a balancing test is the addition of fair use via the Copyright Act of 1976. Prior to 1976, courts had been applying a fair use exception based on common law rather than statute. The act encoded in statute the four factors that Congress wanted to be considered and listed several purposes for which fair use was explicitly applicable. In this case, Congress basically codified the fair use doctrine as it was being used at the time by the courts. It could be considered an expression of approval for the existing interpretation of the time and a desire to prevent drift in that analysis.

  • Thanks, that is good info. The US examples in your link appear to be concerned only with definitions of specific terms. Are there any US examples of legislation about principles of jurisprudence (e,g., weight given to different factors in judgment) rather than interpretation of specific words?
    – BrenBarn
    Commented Jun 30, 2015 at 20:59
  • 1 USC section 7 is presumably no longer valid.
    – phoog
    Commented Jul 1, 2015 at 16:50

See also the Rules of Decision Act (28 U.S.C. § 1652) which requires the application of State law in Federal courts, serving a meta-function:

The laws of the several states, except where the Constitution or treaties of the United States or Acts of Congress otherwise require or provide, shall be regarded as rules of decision in civil actions in the courts of the United States, in cases where they apply.

In California, the following statutes fix general rules of construction for statutory interpretation:

  • California Civil Code §§ 5, 13, 21
  • California Code of Civil Procedure §§ 4, 16, 1858, 1859
  • California Penal Code §§ 4, 7, 7.5

More specific sub-areas of law may have their own statutory rules of intepretation. And way down in the weeds, there are the definitions of terms specific to their usage in specifics groups of statutes, which are not always in harmony.

However, statutory rules of interpretation are themselves open to judicial interpretation and extension or specification. For example:

Calla Tayud vs. State of California (1998) 18 Cal.4th 1057, 1065.

The fundamental purpose of statutory construction is to ascertain the intent of the lawmakers as to effectuate the purpose of the law [Citations.] In order to determine this intent, we began by examining the language of the statute [Citation.] 'But [i]t a settled principle statute interpretation and language of this statute should not be given a literal meaning if doing so would result in absurd consequences which the Legislature did not intend' [Citations.] Thus, '[t]he intent prevails over the letter and the letter will have possible be so read as to conform to the spirit of the act' [Citations.] Finally, we do not construe statutes in isolation, but rather read every statute 'with reference to the entire scheme of law of which it is part so that the whole may be harmonized and retain effectiveness.

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