McGeorge Adjunct Professor Chris Micheli outside the California State Capitol

Sometimes, when reviewing California bills, you come across legislative findings and declarations. What are these, and are they necessary? There are essentially two schools of thought for the second question, but let’s first address what these are.

Sometimes bills will contain the equivalent of what we call a preamble, or a declaration of purpose. This preamble to the bill usually consists of statements of legislative intent. In California, we call these legislative findings and declarations. Their general function is to explain the purpose or intent of the legislature enacting the statute following those findings and declarations.

But are they necessary? I’ll answer that with the classic lawyer answer, it depends. One school of thought believes that these statements of purpose can assist the courts in interpreting any ambiguous terms of statements found in the statute. Generally, the plain reading of a statute is the rule that is followed, but that can be, at times, not easy to follow. In those instances, in California, the courts have to rely on extrinsic evidence regarding legislative intent. Very little of it is available for California legislation, but one of those pieces of evidence could come from the bill itself in these legislative findings and declarations. This point of view advocates that the judicial branch is to provide deference to the legislative branch’s determination regarding what is the need for the bill.

The other school of thought is that a well-crafted bill should not require any extraneous statements within itself as to what the bill is seeking to accomplish, or even the reasons that prompted the enactment of the bill. For example, the South Dakota Legislative Counsel states, “A declaration of purpose is strongly discouraged and is rarely useful. A well-drafted bill should not need a declaration of purpose. However, if a statement of policy of purpose is to be included, it is ordinarily the first section of the bill and should be short and concise. An improperly worded statement of purpose may cause serious problems of judicial interpretation.”

However, there are some circumstances where purpose language may be useful in upholding a bill against a constitutional attack after the enactment of the bill, providing proper meaning and context for the provisions of the bill in question. In those circumstances, some findings and declaration language may be appropriate.