Legislative Intent

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Legislative intent is a construct that courts use to discern the meaning of legislative action, usually in the form of legislation. The concept is employed in many fields of law—including constitutional law—in the interpretation and application of statutes. In constitutional law, courts also use the concept in determining the purposes or goals of a legislature when they are relevant to deciding the constitutionality of the legislation.

In searching for legislative intent, courts appear to assume that legislation is aimed, in an instrumentally rational fashion, at achieving certain objectives or goals. Sometimes these objectives or goals are stated in rather discrete terms. In hines v. davidowitz (1941), for example, the Supreme Court decided that in passing a law requiring aliens to register with federal authorities, Congress had the objective of barring enforcement of state laws that required aliens to register with state officials. At other times, legislative intent is cast in more general terms. Thus in railway express agency v. new york (1949), the Supreme Court decided that the legislative goal in banning advertisements from some motor vehicles was the promotion of traffic safety.

There has been controversy about reference to legislative intent as a method of giving meaning to legislation, much as there has been controversy about reference to the Framers' intent as a means of giving meaning to the provisions of the Constitution itself. Two lines of criticism have developed, one rooted in doubt about the intelligibility of the concept of legislative intent, the other grounded in skepticism about the legitimacy of the political theory that an appeal to legislative intent presupposes.

Those who question the intelligibility of attempting to ascertain the intent of a legislature argue that it is impossible to ascribe an intent to a multi-member body. First, they point out the difficulty of ascertaining the individual intents of all the legislators and, second, they argue that even if the individual intents could be ascertained, there is no theoretically sound way to combine them to produce a coherent intent of the group.

Those who question the legitimacy of an appeal to legislative intent argue that as a matter of political theory, courts should not be bound by beliefs or wishes of legislators that were not written into the text of the statute but rather only the printed words of the legislation. oliver wendell holmes, for example, urged that courts should ask not what the legislature intended but rather only what the statute means. Instead of looking for evidence of legislative intent, courts should, according to Holmes, consult dictionaries and evidence of contemporary usage to construct the most acceptable interpretation of the statute's meaning.

More recent scholarly criticism has also questioned the validity of the assumption about legislative behavior that legislative intent presupposes. According to these critics, legislatures are merely market arenas in which private interests trade with each other through their legislators to further their own particular advantages. A search for a legislative intent beyond the immediate effects that the statute accomplishes is, according to his view, nonsensical and perhaps politically illegitimate as well.

Legislative intent has remained an important concept in constitutional law in spite of these criticisms. First, courts have developed various methods of dealing with the practical difficulties of constructing a legislative intent. Thus the difficulties associated with discovering the intent of each legislator and of aggregating these individual intents into a group intent have been addressed through the use of presumptions and, in some cases, outright fictions. Often, particularly in the case of state legislation, there is no evidence of legislative intent beyond the words of the statute, but the courts nevertheless generally say they are seeking legislative intention when they are deciding what the legislation means.

The courts indulge in similar assumptions when additional evidence does exist. For example, courts generally credit statements in committee reports as evidence of legislative purpose, even though there may be little reason to believe that many legislators read the report or agreed with it. Similarly, the speeches of proponents during floor debates (or even in public discourse outside the legislative arena) are also treated as evidence of legislative intent, even though few legislators may have been present during the floor debate (or heard the nonlegislative remarks). Some have argued that the legislative draftsmen or proponents are the "agents" of the legislature and therefore that their intent is the relevant legislative intent. Others urge that silent legislators who vote for the enactment share the intent of those who do speak in favor of the legislation. Another view is that legislatures in effect delegate to identifiable subgroups, such as committees, the task of setting legislative goals in the areas of the subgroups' specialties. Thus the intent of the legislature with respect to a transportation law would be assumed to be the same as the intent of the legislative committee on transportation. Whatever the rationale, courts have created a concept of legislative intent that does not purport to be a true measurement of the intents of the individual legislators. In effect, courts have personified legislatures and sought to ascribe to them an intent as if the legislature were a single person, one who sometimes speaks with several, often conflicting voices about what he wants to accomplish.

The more fundamental questions of political theory which challenge the legitimacy of looking to legislative intent have not been systematically addressed, at least by the courts. Courts have, by and large, assumed that if legislative intent can be constructed, it is relevant and even controlling in the interpretation of legislative action, at least where the terms of the statute are perceived to provide leeway for interpretation.

Legislative intent may have remained important for several reasons. First, the concept is used widely outside of constitutional law for statutory interpretation. Legislatures have learned what courts will consider in searching for legislative intent, and they have adjusted their processes in some measure to provide the appropriate signals to the courts—thus encouraging continued judicial reliance on legislative intent.

Second, adherence to legislative intent may be grounded in judicial support of what the judges believe to be a political ideal. Although courts may recognize that trading among private interests does occur, they may believe that our society nevertheless aspires to a model of legislation that is an instrumentally rational pursuit of objectives that further the public interest.

Finally, courts have evolved several standards of review in constitutional law that make the legislature's goals or objectives relevant to the constitutionality of the legislation. These standards, such as the rational basis test, least restrictive means analysis, and the tests for federal preemption of state regulatory authority, have no doubt helped insure that the search for legislative intent remains a significant part of constitutional adjudication.

Legislative intent is thus important in several areas of constitutional adjudication. Three examples are illustrative. First, courts look to legislative intent to determine whether a legislature gave an administrative official power to take the challenged action. In kent v. dulles (1958), for example, the secretary of state denied a passport because the applicant failed to state whether or not he was or had been a communist. The Supreme Court held that Congress had not intended to give the secretary of state the power to deny passports on those grounds. Similarly, courts have ruled on numerous occasions—Hines is an example—that a state statute cannot be enforced because Congress, by enacting legislation on the same subject matter, "intended" to preempt the field from state regulation.

Second, courts often look to legislative intent because the constitutionality of the challenged legislative action depends on the legislature's purpose. Thus legislation mandating that only single-family residences may be built in a certain zone is constitutional if the purposes of the law are to reduce traffic, limit demand on municipal resources, and provide a suburban atmosphere. It will be unconstitutional, however, if the legislative purpose is to exclude minorities from the municipality, as the Supreme Court suggested in arlington heights v. metropolitan housing development corporation (1977).

Third, legislative intent is relevant in those areas of constitutional decision making in which courts purportedly scrutinize the "fit" between legislative means and ends. In equal protection law, for example, legislative classification that disadvantages one person vis-à-vis another is said to be constitutional only if the classification is rationally related to a legitimate legislative goal. While courts tend to hypothesize rather freely about what the legislature could have intended to achieve with the classification, evidence of legislative intent is clearly relevant. More important, when circumstances call for more rigorous scrutiny—as when the classification is based on sex or race—the courts are less willing to speculate about the legislature's possible purposes, and they search for concrete evidence of legislative intent.

The meaning of legislation—what the legislature sought to accomplish—is often important in constitutional law. Even though theoretical and practical problems are attendant on the concept of legislative intent, courts use the concept in ascribing meaning to legislation in the numerous doctrinal areas in which the courts themselves have made that meaning relevant.

Scott H. Bice


Dickerson, Reed 1975 Statutory Interpretation: A Peek into the Mind and Will of a Legislature. Indiana Law Journal 50: 206–237.

Mac Callum, Gerald C., Jr. 1966 Legislative Intent. Yale Law Journal 75:754–787.

Radin, Max 1930 Statutory Interpretation. Harvard Law Review 43:863–885.

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Legislative Intent