Using and Understanding Legislative History in Interpreting Ambiguous Statutes

Courts use a lot of different methods to interpret ambiguous statutes in a given case. One method that can be particularly difficult to navigate, and one I really struggled with until I went back and read the below-cited casebook long after law school, is proper use of legislative history.

To really understand legislative history, and then to use it to marshal part of your legal argument, you need to know the basic process of how a bill becomes a law, and what paper trail that bill leaves behind once passed.

The paper trail left behind has ‘an informal hierarchy of importance.’* That hierarchy is listed below. For reference, ‘1’ has the highest persuasive value (informally) to a judge rendering a decision on how an ambiguous statute is to be interpreted, and ‘6’ has the lowest persuasive value on how an ambiguous statute is to be interpreted.

  1. Conference Committee Reports (from the House, from the Senate, Joint Committees- if the Senate and the House pass bill proposals in different forms)
  2. Subcommittee Reports
  3. Committee Hearings
  4. Draft Versions of the bill
  5. Oral debate on the bill that arises on the House or Senate Floor (debates are recorded in the Congressional Record).
  6. Individual Statements of Legislators, Presidential signing statements

*See Lawson, Gary Federal Administrative Law, 8th Ed. 42-44, (2019).

DISCLAIMER – not legal advice All content on this website is intended for general information only, and should not be construed as legal advice, tax advice, or financial advice applicable to your particular situation.

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