Secrecy News

Reverence for the Law, and Statutory Interpretation

The best way to ensure the perpetuation of democratic institutions in turbulent times, said Abraham Lincoln in an 1838 speech, is to cultivate a sense of reverence for the law.

“Let reverence for the laws be breathed by every American mother to the lisping babe that prattles on her lap — let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in Primers, spelling books, and in Almanacs; — let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice.”

“And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation,” said the 28 year old Lincoln.

A newly updated report (pdf) from the Congressional Research Service introduces lay readers to the principles of statutory interpretation used by the Supreme Court to interpret the law.

Some of these rules are commonsensical. Thus, ordinarily, “shall” is mandatory and “may” is permissive.

Others are less obvious but no less important. The principle of “constitutional avoidance,” for example, dictates that a statute should be read, “if fairly possible,” so as not to be found unconstitutional.

At Congressional direction, CRS does not make its products directly available to the American public. But a copy of this useful new CRS report was obtained by Secrecy News.

See “Statutory Interpretation: General Principles and Recent Trends,” updated March 30, 2006.