‘A Guide to Statutory Interpretation’ available from State Bar of Montana
By Greg Overstreet
The State Bar of Montana is pleased to announce a new publication providing a complete guide to rules of statutory interpretation in Montana.
The publication, “A Guide to Statutory Interpretation in Montana,” is available at www.montanabar.org/Store/Publications. I am honored to be the author.
Here is why the topic of statutory interpretation is more important to practitioners than you might otherwise think and how this book can help you in your practice.
The rules of statutory interpretation can impact almost every litigated case. They can affect cases involving a statute, regulation, state constitutional provision, court rule, ordinance, or written instrument such as a contract – virtually every civil or criminal case. Therefore, it is fair to say that most cases in Montana are potentially affected by the rules of statutory interpretation presented in the book.
It has been my experience in almost three decades of litigating cases concerning state constitutional provisions and the meaning of statutes and regulations that the rules of statutory interpretation often – directly or indirectly – determine the outcome of a case. Judges leaning in one direction or another can often justify their decision when an attorney presents them with a helpful rule of statutory interpretation. These rules are remarkably effective.
Surprisingly, given their importance, this topic has not been addressed in Montana legal scholarship. The book is the first to present the Montana rules of statutory interpretation in a holistic, organized, and comprehensive fashion – and the first to synthesize the hundreds of cases and statutes into an understandable framework for applying these rules. The book is a clearly written scholarly treatise with 545 citations to cases, treatises, and statutes – all the law a Montana practitioner needs to quickly and thoroughly brief a statutory interpretation question.
Based on a synthesis of Montana case law, the book presents an analytical framework for determining statutory interpretation questions. It does so by dividing the otherwise jumbled multitude of rules of statutory interpretation into two categories: (1) plain-meaning rules, and (2) ambiguous-statute rules.
Utilizing these two categories, the book presents a two-part framework of how Montana courts interpret statutes. The first part is a court attempting to determine the plain meaning of the statute with the use of a four-step test. If a plain meaning can be determined the analysis stops. If, however, a court cannot determine a plain meaning of the statute from the four-step test – because, for example, the statute is ambiguous – then the second part kicks in. That second part looks at the dozens of miscellaneous rules of statutory interpretation. Each rule is explained in the book with numerous citations.
Another feature of the book is to alert the reader to the multitude of very helpful Montana codified rules of statutory interpretation and legal maxims. Unlike most states, Montana is fortunate to have several statutes spelling out many of the most commonly used rules of statutory interpretation, defining common statutory terms, providing maxims, and even articulating rules of construing written instruments such as contracts and deeds. These codified rules of interpretation and maxims are a treasure trove for the practitioner. They also save the practitioner time; instead of researching the case law on an obscure rule of statutory interpretation, one can often simply cite a statute.
The book also addresses in detail how a court approaches a statutory interpretation question by examining burdens of proof, presumptions, and inferences. These can be the difference between victory and defeat for a practitioner.
The book shows that statutory interpretation is as much of an art as a science. It makes the point that a practitioner should not expect a completely predictable outcome in the case law or in a case they are litigating. The rules of statutory interpretation are merely a factor – albeit often a powerful one – in a judge’s mind along with the facts, procedural history, equity, and public policy. The rules of statutory interpretation assist in the ultimate outcome of a case but rarely completely decide one. In any event, the rules of statutory interpretation are a formidable tool for deciding a case and practitioners should vigorously use them for their clients’ benefit. Everything you need to do so is in the book.
Greg Overstreet is a sole practitioner from Stevensville.