Statutory Construction Canons with SC Citations – X

This is the tenth post annotating with South Carolina law the canons of construction that Justice Antonin Scalia and Bryan A. Garner describe in Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts. This post describes how South Carolina handles what the book on page xvii describes as falsities.

     Text v. Purpose and Intent    

Scalia and Garner, for example, describe as “false notions” that the text is only the “best evidence” of intent; the court’s goal is to discover legislative intent; a statute’s spirit prevails over its letter; and that a statute should be construed to do justice. They similarly describe as a “half-truth” that considering the statute’s consequences guides sound interpretation.

The South Carolina Supreme Court applies many of these so-called false notions, including holding that the statutory language is the “best evidence” of intent and that the “cardinal rule” of statutory construction is to ascertain and effectuate the legislative intent. Grier v. Amisub of South Carolina, Inc., 397 S.C. 532, 535, 725 S.E.2d 693, 695 (2012).

The Court has also held that it is “not always confined to the literal meaning of a statute; the real purpose and intent of the lawmakers will prevail over the literal import of the words.” Caughman v. Columbia Y.M.C.A., 212 S.C. 337, 341, 47 S.E.2d 788, 789 (1948). See also Soil Remediation Co. v. Nu-way Envtl., Inc., 317 S.C. 274, 276, 453 S.E.2d 253, 254 (Ct.App. 1995)(“Where, however, there is something about the statute that makes it clear the legislature did not intend the letter of the statute to prevail, the court can consider the spirit of the enactment.”)

On the other hand, the Court more recently suggested that a statute be reformed but, “Nevertheless, we are interpreters not legislators and are bound by the language of [the statute] as written.” Bentley v. Spartanburg County, 398 S.C. 418, 426, 730 S.E.2d 296, 301 (2012).

     Strict and Liberal Construction

The book on page xvii also condemns as false notions that courts should strictly or liberally construe statutes. But the South Carolina Supreme Court has often held that certain classes of statutes deserve strict or liberal construction. See, e.g., Alltel Communications v. South Carolina Dep’t of Revenue, 399 S.C. 313, 731 S.E.2d 869 (2012)(construing tax statutes to favor taxpayers if meaning in doubt); Auto Owners Ins. Co. v. Rollison, 378 S.C. 600, 663 S.E.2d 464 (2008)(liberally construing remedial statute); Harris v. Harris, 307 S.C. 351, 415 S.E.2d 391 (1992)(strictly construing statutes which deprive a court of jurisdiction).

     Committee reports and floor speeches.

The South Carolina Supreme Court agrees with Scalia and Garner’s rejection of committee reports and floor speeches as interpretive guides. In South Carolina, courts do not consider the individual views of a statute’s drafters and legislators when construing even ambiguous statutes. Catawba Indian Tribe of South Carolina v. South Carolina, 372 S.C. 519, 527 n. 5, 642 S.E.2d 751, 755 n. 5 (2007).

     Original meaning

Lastly, the Court agrees with Scalia and Garner that contemporaneous history may guide interpretation. In re Hospital Pricing Litig., 377 S.C. 48, 54, 659 S.E.2d 131, 134 (2008)(“The history of the period in which the statute was passed may be considered in interpreting the statute.”).

What do you think about Scalia and Garner’s falsities? Please let us know through the comment box or here.




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