Legal "Debate": Legislative Intent

Disclaimer the first: This may be an IMHO, but legal stuff usually ends up here or in the Pit.
Disclaimer the second: IANAL nor do I play one on TV. I am an interested layman with some informal background in law (mostly contract-type stuff).

Exxon v Allapattah Services, Inc, et al. (SC No. 04-70 warning: PDF) is a case in which I have some interest (not as a plaintiff or defendant). It’s a 5-4 decision regarding federal jurisdiction, specifically supplemental jurisdiction. My “question” however, lies along a different path. At the heart of the issue is §1367, a law that appears to be somewhat straightforward on a plain reading of the text (see the majority opinion page 9 and after). However, there is a problem in that a House Committee Report was issued that basically said: “We know what the text says, but that’s not what we mean by it”. But apparently no attempt was ever made to actually amplify the text of the statute itself, and it passed with the conflict intact. The majority opinion says (paraphrased): When the plain-meaning of the statute is clear, we don’t need to look at intent and this one is clear. Stevens’ and Ginsberg’s dissenting opinions say: You always look at legislative intent since “close questions of [statutory] construction should be resolved in favor on continuity and against change” (see Ginsberg dissent page 19) and the statute isn’t that damn clear anyway.

I tend to agree with the majority, why should a committee report be allowed to override an otherwise (reasonably) clear statute? I understand (and agree, I think) that, in cases where the statute is not clear or is being interpreted against new circumstances, legislative history can be a valuable guide as to Congress’ intent and should be given weight. In this case though, at the time the committee report was issued, Congress was aware of the possible misinterpretation and had the opportunity to fix it, but chose not to. Why should the Committee Report be given any weight at all?

Hmm, this is a tricky one. In general I think intent should trump the letter of the law. The letter of the law is an attempt to codify, in precise language, the intent. The intent is generally free of loopholes(as only a non-substantial ideal can be, since the rubber hasn’t met the road yet). I think if the text falls short of the spirit then the text should be updated to be as close as possible to the intent when real-world conflicts arise.

However, this philosophy presumes some sort of general consensus as to the spirit of the law among the requisite majority of legisators to have it enacted. This particular case has an oddball element because it passed out of committee with plain meaning in the text which did not match the intent of the authors. I think it is safe to assume the majority of legislators simply read the statute itself or had someone on their staff brief them on it. In this case I would bet that the view of the statute’s intent when it came up for a vote was split between those who had served on or read the committee report(probably a small minority) and those who had merely read the statue itself and assumed it was intended to capture exactly what it did capture. Thus when votes were cast the measure passed with a majority thinking it was a different statute than the authors had intended to create. If the record could show the other legislators were aware of this discrepancy between text and intent and voted for it based on the intent presuming the textual issues would be dealt with either through the way it was enforced by the executive or some other channel, then I could see saying intent trumps here too.

At the moment though it seems a small minority crafted a poor statute which did not capture their intent accurately and may have actually misled their fellow legislators. If the majority who voted on it when it came to the floor(assuming it did) thought it captured a different intent than it actually did then the law should stand as it was understood by the majority. They may have never signed off on it at all if their understanding of the intent behind the statute had been clearer.

This is actually one area of the lawmaking process that I am happier with these days. Committee reports, debate transcripts, votes, etc. are all preserved and available to help resolve these kinds of issues. Most of them have been for a while in hard-copy form, but with the widespread use of digital media they are easier to keep, access, and keep updated.

Basically I would come down one of two ways. If it could be shown the intent was widely known and the legislators were voting based on intent and kind of holding their nose at the ugly wording because they couldn’t think of anything better then I think intent should trump. If the wording confused the issue so legislators outside the committee thought it was as the text represented versus the intent which was known during the committee debates then the non-committee legislators signed their names on a different law than the committee intended to produce. This is not the fault of the non-committee legislators and they should not be bound by the intent which was both poorly captured and not communicated before the vote.