The problem with old laws seems to be that many times the drafters aren't alive to tell what their intent or interpretation is of a given law, but in case a law is new and the drafter or drafters are alive, can courts ask them about the interpretation and intent behind a law?

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    You understand that the ~350 people who voted for a law at the federal level may have had ~200 different understandings and reasons for supporting it. Commented Mar 1, 2023 at 6:19
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    I recall a very similar past question, with the answer essentially being an emphatic, and largely jurisdiction-neutral (within common law) “no.” Commented Mar 2, 2023 at 2:06
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    @GeorgeWhite: I'd expect ~350 people to have about ~700 interpretations actually :/ Commented Mar 2, 2023 at 10:26
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    @Seekinganswers I recall it too, it was also HNQ'd; can't find it at the moment
    – bertieb
    Commented Mar 2, 2023 at 12:47
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    @Seekinganswers Hot Network Questions - i.e. the list on the right-hand side if you're reading this on a large enough screen, or possibly at the bottom otherwise. Commented Mar 2, 2023 at 12:51

7 Answers 7



Under U.S. Jurisprudence, any vagueness in a criminal law must be given an interpretation favorable to the people, rather than the government, since the government had the opportunity to make their intentions clear when drafting the law. Additionally, the U.S. Constitution has what is called the "Vagueness Doctrine" which renders vague laws at any level of government to be unenforceable (Found in the 5th and 14th Amendment as an interpretation of the Due Process clauses).

The quickest way to overturn the court's ruling is for a legislature to pass an amended law that defines the vague terms in terms that are better understood and can give the courts a proper interpretation of what should happen, however, no one who was charged under the law can be recharged under the new definition.

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    Mostly true; but when a civil suit hinges on a vague law it gets ugly.
    – Joshua
    Commented Mar 1, 2023 at 22:47
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    "Favorable to the people" here means "to the accused"? (I mean, if I'm the victim, I have likely other ideas of what would be favorable to me.) Commented Mar 2, 2023 at 0:05
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    What relationship does this notion have to the doctrine of contra proferentum? Commented Mar 2, 2023 at 2:07
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    @PaŭloEbermann It is to the accused. In Criminal Law, the victim is not the party bringing the case, the government is.
    – hszmv
    Commented Mar 2, 2023 at 12:49
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    @Seekinganswers I believe it's the same legal basis (The person who drafts the vagueness is ruled against because they had the ability to clarify). I don't know which came first.
    – hszmv
    Commented Mar 2, 2023 at 12:52


There are three ways that Parliament or a legislature can communicate to a court.

In important cases of statutory interpretation, the Government will often be allowed to intervene to present its views on how the law should be interpreted.

Parliament and legislatures have already provided significant direction to courts about how to interpret statutes via Interpretation Acts.

Parliament and legislatures often will include a preamble or explicit purpose provisions in an Act. These play a significant role in directing a court's understanding of the intent behind a law.

* See this help page: Even if you supply a jurisdiction tag, we expect and encourage answers dealing with other jurisdictions – while it might not answer your question directly, your question will be here for others who may be from those jurisdictions. If you do this, please tag your answer using the tag markdown: [tag: some-tag].

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    Downvoted as this answer ignores that the question was posed regarding California law. California is a State in the United States, which everyone can agree, is a different nation than Canada and as such, the cited case from the Canadian Supreme Court and the Interpretation Act are not binding on any U.S. State (the Interpretation Act would be Unconstitutional in the U.S. on it's face, since the Constitution addresses this issue.). Please ensure that when you answer a question tagged with a specific jurisdiction, your answer is for that jurisdiction.
    – hszmv
    Commented Mar 1, 2023 at 13:09
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    I would acknowledge in your answer that this is not the way it's done for the question's tagged jurisdiction and move the tag to the bottom of the question (I don't know if putting it at the top is a formatting issue with all tags in answers or just your own style choice, I've never used tags in my answers). Especially if you are writing the first answer to the question.
    – hszmv
    Commented Mar 1, 2023 at 13:42
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    Almost every answer that is not from the requested jurisdiction does not include a tag, for the jurisdiction it applies to, but rather a written acknowledgment in the answer itself. Basically, the author of the answer directly state's "this is not right because it's not the correct jurisdiction". Nobody uses tag in their answers.
    – hszmv
    Commented Mar 1, 2023 at 13:57
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    @hszmv You are wrong. It is site concensus to do so, and tag at the top makes is much clearer. I use even headers for jurisdictions.
    – Trish
    Commented Mar 1, 2023 at 15:38
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    @hszmv: this was raised a while ago over on Meta, and the consensus appears to be that Jen is correct. Commented Mar 1, 2023 at 20:50

In the US, courts do not ask questions, except that in appellate courts, after an attorney presents his arguments, the justices can ask questions of the attorney. Here is a recording of argumentation before the California Supreme Court (e.g. 4:46). In inquisitorial systems, judges are tasked with interrogating witnesses, but not here.

There is an opportunity for parties to submit briefs that bear on a case, and such brief can be quite wide-ranging. The briefs can inform the justices, but they cannot command them. The problem with your proposal is that there is not even a reasonable chance of identifying an "authority" as to intent. The identity of the drafter of a piece of legislation is in a black box, and there is likely to not be a single person who wrote the legislation. There is probably a list of members of the legislature who introduced the legislation, but they have staff who write bills, and it would be impossible to definitively trace who exactly wrote a particular phrase.

Besides which, the courts are not charged with enforcing the intentions of the staff person who drafted a clause, they are charged with enforcing the law that was enacted by the legislature, regardless of who wrote it. The concept of "collective intent" is kinda sketchy, but it does exist in certain schools of jurisprudence, as a way of determining the meaning of the text that was actually enacted. Therefore (thanks to the aforementioned briefs) one side can present evidence from legislative committee reports that might inform the court of bits of reasoning that was actually used in the creation of the bill. No individual is in the privileged psition of being able to say "this is what the group was thinking, in using that phrase".

  • Strictly speaking, federal appellate courts do occasionally certify questions of state law to state supreme courts. In theory, they can also certify questions of federal law to SCOTUS, but the last time that actually happened, SCOTUS responded like this. Regardless, they certainly would not certify a question to a legislative body - that would violate separation of powers by allowing the legislature to exercise the judicial power.
    – Kevin
    Commented Mar 2, 2023 at 6:14
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    This is a good answer, especially with reference to committee reports. If every public statement about a bill being debated said "X means Y" then the courts can take that into consideration. But they can't call up the bill sponsors after the fact and ask, "What's X mean?" Commented Mar 2, 2023 at 18:46

A bill that is passed, is passed as presented for vote, not as intended. In most circumstances, the original intent of the bill is not the bill that was passed.

Even if the original intent could be known, the point of all the discussion is to modify the text of the bill. Often there is significant modification of the text in order to make it more acceptable for the legislature and executive to pass. Going back to some previous meaning would be, in essence, a bait-and-switch scam.

Consider: some time after a bill becomes law, we ask the original drafter what they intended. They could give any answer. We'd want some way for them to write down their intent upon drafting. We have that: it is the bill that was drafted.

However, as for what a judge may do, they may use any source they wish including their own opinion, as a basis for a ruling. It is not uncommon for a judge to have conversations about anything with many people. This may include the drafter of a bill.

Whatever the judge is supposed to do, legal training is largely based around finding ways to justify one's opinion using specific means allowable in a given context. Most judges will be good at this, having had significant practice at doing it.

While technically the answer is no, practically, this could happen through other means.



If Parliament can tell the courts how to read the law in particular cases, rather than in general, it doesn't make the courts independent.

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    Is California's law-making body actually called Parliament, or is this an answer for a different jurisdiction (before the tag was added to the question, perhaps)? Commented Mar 3, 2023 at 15:51
  • California’s lawmaking body is a parliament whatever its official name is
    – Dale M
    Commented Mar 3, 2023 at 20:27
  • Not every jurisdiction has absolute separation of the legislative and judicial powers. In England and Wales, the Localism Act 2011 contains an example of Parliament telling the courts to change how they interpret the common-law concepts of "bias" and "predetermination". But that's not quite what OP asks for, Commented Mar 4, 2023 at 9:55
  • @DanielHatton that’s not an example of non-separation. That’s an example of Parliamentary supremacy. The legislature in every common law jurisdiction can (subject to any constitution) change the common law.
    – Dale M
    Commented Mar 4, 2023 at 10:02
  • @DaleM But they didn't change the common law (or replace it with a superseding statute law): they left the common-law principle in place, and told the courts to interpret it differently. Commented Mar 4, 2023 at 10:04

There is precedent, kinda.

First, to be very clear, I generally agree with everyone who is saying no; but, sometimes judges do do additional research to determine intent.

For example, the U.S. Supreme Court and other courts have been known to cite the Federalist Papers, for example Federalist Paper #78. Though, apparently the most cited federalist paper is Federalist No. 42.

Obviously the jurists are not directly asking the writers of the constitution, but they are using sources to determine intent.

How prevalent this practice is outside this one example I cannot say as a non-expert.


First off, what you ask is impossible: Laws are generally written by committees, and are then rewritten by other committees and then probably passed by yet another committee.

In a well functioning democracy, the people that hate the law can shape it just as much as the people that love it.

Secondly, even if it was possible, say bills were required to be written by a single legislator and passed or failed without modification, that still wouldn’t make that person an authority on what the law meant, quite the opposite, because then it would mean what people with no input into it wanted it to mean —- they would be passing the bill hoping for Y, but with no way to actually require Y.

It would be giving them special status as compared to everyone else, they would effectively be the final judge. It says what they say it means, no more, and no less.

Their arguments may be instructive, but is not binding.

Finally, there is an old and well known remedy for vagueness —- reject and rewrite.

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    Unfortunately, the usual pattern is that 30% of the legislature would favor a law that says X and oppose one that says Y, 30% would support one that says Y and oppose one that says X, and 40% would oppose both, but a new law Z written in an ambiguous way so that people who favor X will think it says X, while those who favor Y will think it says Y, thus yielding a law that kinda sorta combines both X and Y, even though both X and Y were opposed by 70% supermajorities.
    – supercat
    Commented Mar 4, 2023 at 19:57

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