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Federal Legislative History: Statutory Interpretation

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Statutory Interpretation by Courts

Statutory Ambiguity

When statutory language is clear, construction of the statute by reference to its history is unnecessary. This is the "plain meaning rule." Accordingly, when a statute is ambiguous and unclear courts look into the legislative history to clear up the ambiguity.  Courts may use extrinisic aids to help them in their pursuit of the  meaning of the statute.

Extrinsic Aids

Source materials outside the text of the statute are known as extrinsic aids.  They consist of the history of a statute including

  • background information that led to the enactment of a statute (preenactment history),
  • events surrounding enactment (enactment history), and
  • developments pertinent to subsequent operation (postenactment history).

This information can be found in

  • legislative,
  • executive,
  • judicial, or
  • nongovernmental sources.

Year to Congress Conversion

Years of the 1st through 113th Congresses (1789-2014)

Since 1934, the first session of a Congress convenes on January 3 of odd-numbered years and adjourns on January 3 the following odd-numbered year. For ease of use, this table lists the closing date of each Congress as an even-numbered year. For exact dates of sessions, consult the Congressional Directory, Sessions of Congress table.