McGeorge Adjunct Professor Chris Micheli outside the California State Capitol

Today I’ll consider the question of whether legislative intent language can overcome statutory language. I’ve seen instances in the California Legislature where a bill contains both statutory changes – language that adds, amends, or repeals Code Sections – as well as legislative intent statements – usually in the form of findings and declarations.

In most instances, one would expect these two types of provisions to be consistent. While with a well-drafted bill it may not be necessary for a court to resort to looking at findings and declarations to determine intent, there are times when legislators or interest groups want to have the extra assurance that the judicial branch will interpret the statute the way they desire. But what about instances where the statutory language and the legislative findings and declarations are not consistent with each other? How should a court treat that occurrence?

By way of background, it is presumed that if the language in a bill makes a material change to a statute – it adds, amends, or repeals language in the statute – then the amendment was intended to change the meaning of the statute.

To me, it would make sense for the courts to not rely upon legislative intent language, but rather to determine whether the underlying statute was materially changed, and then determine the effect to those statutory changes.

In most instances, the courts have ruled that the amendment of a statute is evidence of an intention to change a law. In these instances, there is no need for intent language to be considered or resorted to by the courts unless there was some ambiguity in the changed statutory language. Then, in theory, the purpose of the legislative intent language is to help resolve some of the ambiguity in the statutory language.

It is worth noting that the California Supreme Court has said that if there is no ambiguity in the language, then they presume the Legislature meant what it said, and the plain meaning of the statute governs their interpretation.

In my mind, the logical conclusion is that legislative intent language cannot overcome statutory language, particularly in instances where the bill makes no material changes to the underlying statute.

You can find the transcript of today’s audio here.