Research Guides

TMLL Research Guide - Chapter 4


STATUTORY LAW: BACKGROUND


Statutes are laws enacted by legislative bodies - either the legislature of one of the fifty states or the U.S. Congress.

Checking to see whether controlling statutory law exists is an important step in any research project. There are several important points to remember in statutory research:

  • Statutory language is frequently the product of political negotiation and compromise, and may for that reason be broad and/or ambiguous. This is why courts are frequently confronted by disputes which turn upon questions of statutory interpretation. It is always important for the researcher to search for cases that have applied and interpreted statutory language.
  • Statute sections are rarely meant to be understood in isolation from one another. Major pieces of legislation are often divided into sections when they are drafted, passed, and integrated into a statutory code. Thus, in order to fully understand a statute section's application, it must be read in conjunction with the rest of the statute as passed. 
  • Code terms often carry meanings that are specific to the piece of legislation. Never assume that a term used in a statute section has its obvious or colloquial meaning. The term may be defined within the section in which it appears, or in a separate "definitions" section enacted along with it.  Always read through the entire section, and examine the chapter or part of the code in which it appears, in order to determine whether a term has a special meaning for the purpose of the statute.
  • In state statutory research, the concepts of mandatory and persuasive authority vary from their meanings in the case research context. Obviously, statutes passed by a state’s legislature are mandatory authority in that state. The courts of that state may interpret and apply the statutes, but in doing so, they must give effect to the purpose of the legislative body in enacting the statute. In a given state, statutes from other states are not persuasive authority in the same sense that cases may be. A nationwide trend toward enacting a certain type of legislation may influence a state legislature to follow suit.  However, until that happens, a state court will not consider statutes from other states as any type of authority. Additionally, when using out-of-state cases as persuasive authority, be certain that their holdings are not dependent upon interpretations of statutory language which is absent from, or which varies from, the statutes of the controlling state.
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