Statutory Construction Canons with SC Citations

The last post outlined various types of legal arguments, including arguments from text. This post begins a series of posts on ways to analyze text.

In a recent book, Justice Antonin Scalia and legal writing guru Bryan A. Garner advocate what they described as a “fair reading” approach in which one determines how a reasonable reader, fully competent in the language, would have understood the text at the time it issued. The book, entitled Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts, lists with examples 57 canons of construction and exposes what the authors call 13 fallacies.

The book begins with five fundamental principles. These principles are quoted below from pages xi-xii of the book and are then annotated with South Carolina law.

Interpretation – Every application of a text to particular circumstances entails interpretation.”

South Carolina initially interprets the text for any ambiguity. “Where language is unambiguous, the Court’s inquiry is over, and the statute must be applied according to its plain meaning.”Jennings v. Jennings, 401 S.C. 15, 736 S.E.2d 651 (2012).

Supremacy of Text– The words of a governing text are of paramount concern, and what they convey, in their context, is what the text means.”

See Jennings, 401 S.C. at 4, 736 S.E.2d at 243 (“Statutory construction must begin with the language of the statute.”); Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co. v. Rhoden, 398 S.C. 393, 401 n. 4, 728 S.E.2d 477, 481 n. 4 (2012)(“If legislative intent is clear as reflected in the statutory language, any public policy as promulgated by this Court must give way . . ..”); Bentley v. Spartanburg County, 398 S.C. 418, 426, 730 S.E.2d 296, 301 (2012)(“[W]e are interpreters not legislators and are bound by the language of [the statute] as written.”).

Interrelated Canons – No canon of interpretation is absolute. Each may be overcome by the strength of differing principles that point in other directions.”

In South Carolina Tax Commission v. Rowell, 154 S.C. 55, 151 S.E. 218 (1930), the Court rejected the argument that a directly conflicting and later enactment supersedes the first enactment in favor of achieving the statute’s purpose in context.

Presumption Against Ineffectiveness– A textually permissible interpretation that furthers rather than obstructs the document’s purpose should be favored.”

See Florence County Democratic Party v. Florence County Republican Party, 398 S.C. 124, 128, 727 S.E.2d 418, 420 (2012)(“The statutory language must be constructed in light of the intended purpose of the statute [citation omitted]. This Court will not construe a statute in a way which leads to an absurd result or renders it meaningless.”).

Presumption of Validity – An interpretation that validates outweighs one that invalidates.”

See City of Rock Hill v. Harris, 391 S.C. 149, 154, 705 S.E.2d 53, 55 (2011)(“[T]he Court will, if possible, construe [the statute] so as to render it valid[.]”).

The next post will begin annotating the 11 semantic canons that Scalia and Garner identified. Until then, you can reach me here.







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