Legislative Intent

Author:Scott H. Bice

Page 1591

Legislative intent is a construct that courts use to discern the meaning of legislative action, usually in the form of

Page 1592

LEGISLATION. The concept is employed in many fields of law?including constitutional law?in the interpretation and application of statutes. In constitutional law, courts also use the concept in determining the purposes or goals of a legislature when they are relevant to deciding the constitutionality of the legislation.

In searching for legislative intent, courts appear to assume that legislation is aimed, in an instrumentally rational fashion, at achieving certain objectives or goals. Sometimes these objectives or goals are stated in rather discrete terms. In HINES V. DAVIDOWITZ (1941), for example, the Supreme Court decided that in passing a law requiring ALIENS to register with federal authorities, Congress had the objective of barring enforcement of state laws that required aliens to register with state officials. At other times, legislative intent is cast in more general terms. Thus in RAILWAY EXPRESS AGENCY V. NEW YORK (1949), the Supreme Court decided that the legislative goal in banning advertisements from some motor vehicles was the promotion of traffic safety.

There has been controversy about reference to legislative intent as a method of giving meaning to legislation, much as there has been controversy about reference to the Framers' intent as a means of giving meaning to the provisions of the Constitution itself. Two lines of criticism have developed, one rooted in doubt about the intelligibility of the concept of legislative intent, the other grounded in skepticism about the legitimacy of the political theory that an appeal to legislative intent presupposes.

Those who question the intelligibility of attempting to ascertain the intent of a legislature argue that it is impossible to ascribe an intent to a multi-member body. First, they point out the difficulty of ascertaining the individual intents of all the legislators and, second, they argue that even if the individual intents could be ascertained, there is no theoretically sound way to combine them to produce a coherent intent of the group.

Those who question the legitimacy of an appeal to legislative intent argue that as a matter of political theory, courts should not be bound by beliefs or wishes of legislators that were not written into the text of the statute but rather only the printed words of the legislation. OLIVER...

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