Interpretation of Enacted Law

JurisdictionMaryland

IV. Interpretation of enacted law

To understand the meaning and applicability of enacted law, courts apply rules of statutory construction and the principle of stare decisis. Although this is referred to as statutory construction or statutory interpretation, because it is most frequently used to interpret statutes, this general process is also used to interpret constitutions, charters, ordinances, administrative regulations, rules of court, and treaties. See Norman J. Singer, Sutherland on Statutes & Statutory Construction (7th ed. 2007); West Key Number System Statutes key #174-361.

A. Source and purpose of rules of statutory construction

Since 1803, as part of the task of judicial review, pursuant to Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137 (1803), under separation of powers and the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution, courts have formulated principles of statutory construction to assist judges in interpreting what the framers, drafters, and promulgators intended. In Price v. State, 378 Md. 378, 387 (2003), the Court of Appeals stated that the main goal in statutory interpretation is to discover what the legislature intended in enacting a given statute. In Ray v. State, 410 Md. 384 (2009), the Court of Appeals stated:

In statutory interpretation, our primary goal is always to discern the legislative purpose, the ends to be accomplished, or the evils to be remedied by a particular provision, be it statutory, constitutional, or part of the rules. We begin our analysis by looking to the normal, plain meaning of the language of the statute, reading the statute as a whole to ensure that no word, clause, sentence, or phrase is rendered surplusage, superfluous, meaningless, or nugatory. If the language of the statute is clear and unambiguous, we need not look beyond the statute's provisions and our analysis ends. If, however, the language is subject to more than one interpretation, it is ambiguous, and we endeavor to resolve the ambiguity by looking to the statute's legislative history, case law, and statutory purpose, as well as the structure of the statute. When the statute is part of a larger statutory scheme, we analyze the statutory scheme as a whole considering the purpose, aim, or policy of the enacting body and attempt to harmonize provisions dealing with the same subject so that each may be given effect.

Id. at 404-05 (internal citations, quotations, & alterations omitted); accord Gardner v. State, 420 Md. 1, 8-9 (2011) (summarizing rules of statutory construction). In Gillespie v. State, 370 Md. 219, 222 (2002), the Court of Appeals stated that it would neither add nor delete words to an unambiguous statute. See Uniform Statutory Construction Act § 13(2); accord State v. Holton, 420 Md. 530, 541 (2011); Weems v. State, 203 Md. App. 47 (2012). Most principles of statutory construction have been judicially created. Legislatures have created some principles of statutory construction. See Md. Code Ann., art. 1, §§ 1-27. There are secondary authority rules of statutory construction, e.g., the Uniform Statute and Rule Construction Act (1995).

B. Applicability of rules of statutory construction

Deciding whether the rules of statutory construction apply requires distinguishing among (1) statutes that are plain on their face and need no interpretation because reasonable minds could not differ as to their meaning; (2) statutes that are ambiguous and need statutory construction because reasonable minds could differ as to their meaning; and (3) statutes that are so ambiguous as to be constitutionally void for vagueness because reasonable minds could not decipher the legislative intent. The distinctions among "plain on its face," "ambiguous," and "void for vagueness" are a matter of degree.

1. Statutes that are plain on their face

A statute that is plain on its face contains no ambiguity and needs no statutory construction because there is only one possible meaning. In Montgomery County v. Buckman, 333 Md. 516 (1994), the Court of Appeals stated: "[W]hen there is no ambiguity or obscurity in the language of the statute, there is no need to look elsewhere to ascertain the intent of the legislative body." Id. at 523 (citing In re Criminal Investigation No. 1-162, 307 Md. 674, 685 (1986)); see Stubbs v. State, 406 Md. 34, 43 (2008); Police Commissioner v. Dowling, 281 Md. 412, 418 (1977); State v. Fabritz, 276 Md. 416, 421 (1975); Uniform Statute and Rule Construction Act (1995) § 2.

Under the principle of judicial review, courts decide what the law is. A statute means only what it means in light of its judicial interpretation, which is sometimes called its "judicial gloss." A court decides if a statute is plain on its face. Thus, a court must apply statutory construction to determine if there is a need for statutory construction.

The process of determining whether a statute is plain on its face begins with the language of the statute. In Walzer v. Osborne, 395 Md. 563, 572 (2006), the Court of Appeals stated that courts must first look to the plain language of a statute, giving the statute its natural and ordinary meaning. Id. at 572 (citing State Department of Assessments & Taxation v. Maryland-National Capital Park & Planning Comm'n, 348 Md. 2, 13 (1997)); Buckman, 333 Md. at 523. Apply everyday meaning and usage to everyday words, phrases, and grammar. Use common sense and non-legal dictionaries. See Ishola v. State, 404 Md. 155, 169 (2008); Allen v. State, 402 Md. 59, 76 (2007).

In Kilmon v. State, 394 Md. 168 (2006), the Court of Appeals stated: "[C]ourts must attempt to construe statutes in a common sense manner." Id. at 176 (citing Gilmer v. State, 389 Md. 656, 663 (2005); Comptroller v. Citicorp, 389 Md. 156, 169 (2005); Cain v. State, 386 Md. 320, 328 (2005)); LaFave, supra § 2.2(d), at 92-94. A court may take judicial notice of the everyday meaning and usage of everyday words and phrases.

Courts typically apply a legal or technical meaning to legal or technical words and phrases, including terms of art, i.e., terms that have a special meaning in the law. See Uniform Statute and Rule Construction Act (1995) § 15(4); Holy Cross Hospital of Silver Spring, Inc. v. Health Services Cost Review Comm'n, 283 Md. 677, 680 n.2 (1978). Courts apply the common law meaning and stare decisis to common law terms of art, e.g., burglary. And they apply statutory definitions, their judicial gloss, and the principle of stare decisis to statutory terms. See McKenzie v. State, 407 Md. 120, 125-26 (2008).

2. Statutes that are ambiguous

Because the English language is an imperfect medium for communication, statutes are often ambiguous and need statutory construction or interpretation to resolve the ambiguity and to determine which of multiple potential meanings is the one intended by the drafters. In Deville v. State, 383 Md. 217 (2004), the Court of Appeals stated that ambiguous or equivocal statutory language requires an interpreting court to consider the ordinary meaning of the words, as used in the context of the overall meaning and purpose of the statute. "In other words, [the Court will not] view the plain language in isolation, but analyze the entire statutory scheme as a whole." Id. at 223.

Courts may not eliminate ambiguity by simply inserting words into a statute or deleting words from a statute. Henriquez v. Henriquez, 413 Md. 287, 299 (2010) (citing St. Joseph Medical Center, Inc. v. Cardiac Associates, P.A., 392 Md. 75, 95 (2006); Nesbit v. Government Employees Insurance Co., 382 Md. 65, 75 (2004); Melton v. State, 379 Md. 471, 477 (2004)). In Orndorff & Spaid, Inc. v. Department of Licensing & Regulation, 32 Md. App. 155, 157-58 (1976), the Court of Special Appeals held that a court may not supply omissions in a statute, remedy defects in a statute, or insert exceptions in a statute or administrative regulation.

3. Statutes that are void for vagueness

If a statute is too ambiguous to determine its meaning, without speculating, the statute is unconstitutionally void for vagueness. Ashton v. Brown, 339 Md. 70, 93 (1995). The Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment applies against the federal government, and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment applies against state and local governments. The Maryland Constitution requires due process under Md. Decl. of Rights art. 24. To be constitutional, a statute (a) must provide fair warning and notice; (b) must not be susceptible to arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement; and (c) must not create a "chilling effect" on the exercise of constitutional rights.

Statutes must provide fair warning and notice by conveying a reasonably definite meaning to eliminate the need to speculate as to (a) persons who are subject to the statute; (b) conduct proscribed by the statute; and/or (c) the punishment, if the statute is violated. In McBoyle v. United States, 283 U.S. 25, 27 (1931), the Supreme Court stated:

Although it is not likely that a criminal will carefully consider the text of the law before he murders or steals, it is reasonable that a fair warning should be given to the world in language that the common world will understand, of what the law intends to do if a certain line is passed. To make the warning fair, . . . the line should be clear.

Id. at 27; see Galloway v. State, 365 Md. 599, 614-15 (2001); Bowers v. State, 283 Md. 115, 121-22 (1978).

Analyze the statute as applied in the factual context of the present case. The standard for determining whether a statute provides fair notice is whether persons of common intelligence must necessarily guess at the statute's meaning. Evaluate the statute in terms of its judicial gloss because statutes mean only what mandatory jurisdictions have held that they mean. See Stewart v. State, 275 Md. 258, 270-71 (1975). Statutes do not have to eliminate, either on their face or through their judicial gloss, all ambiguities in order to be constitutional.

The issue is whether the statute is merely ambiguous...

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