Legislative Intent and California Courts

Chris Micheli
Chris Micheli is a Principal with the Sacramento governmental relations firm of Aprea & Micheli, Inc.

In determining the intent of the Legislature in enacting state laws, California courts have historically taken a limited view of legislative materials that can be used to determine intent. The courts generally rely upon certain types of legislative history documents to gain an understanding of the meaning of a statute and, ultimately, to apply the Legislature’s intent when interpreting a statute.

The determination of legislative intent is important because there are instances in which there are legitimate legal disputes between parties as to what statutory language may mean or what was intended by the language. In these cases, both parties will attempt to argue that their interpretation is the correct one that should be adopted by the court. Obviously, it is up to the judiciary to determine whose view is the correct one.

The concern from this author’s perspective is that the courts utilize an unrealistic viewpoint in determining which legislative intent materials can be properly used by a court to make a determination. For example, the courts have determined that documents available to all legislators are the proper ones to use. Of course, this is based upon the assumption, which is not likely correct, that all legislators read all of the materials before casting their votes. That assumption is probably not a realistic view of what actually happens in the legislative process.

Readers should understand that this statement is not meant as a criticism of the Legislature or any individual legislators. Instead, it is simply an acknowledgement that legislators cannot be expected to read every bill and all of the background materials and analyses and thoroughly understand the intent behind each and every measure and the particular wording used in the legislation when they are voting on thousands of bills each year.

The other point from this author’s perspective is that California’s legislative history is lacking, particularly in comparison to the materials produced by the federal government. In a similar manner to the prior concern expressed, this is not a criticism of the California legislative process; rather, it is an acknowledgement that there is limited, insightful material produced in conjunction with the consideration of legislation.

For example, Congress uses a committee mark-up session to delve deeply into the legislative language being used in a bill. They review in detail the language and discuss and debate it and there are transcripts of those hearings. In the California Legislature, on the other hand, committees rarely get into the details of bill language. There may be debate generally over the policy of a particular bill, but rarely any discussion about the bill’s actual language.

Also, at the federal level, there is the benefit of the Congressional Record, basically a verbatim transcript of debate and discussion regarding pending legislation and debate, which is obviously very helpful for reviewing legislative intent. However, the Assembly Daily Journal and the Senate Daily Journal do not have anything in detail regarding legislative debate. As such, the main source of legislative intent in the California Legislature is a committee analysis.

Unfortunately, committee and floor bill analyses rarely provide details or insights into why specific bill language was or was not used in a bill. Generally, the bill analyses explain existing law, changes to the law being made by the proposed bill, arguments for and against the bill, and a few staff comments. However, rarely is specific language discussed and reasons why that particular language was used. As a result, there are definite limitations in gleaning insight into the language used by the Legislature when it comes to bills.

Because of these factors, California courts’ reliance on certain legislative materials is important, but the courts may be taking an unnecessarily narrow view of which items can be appropriately used to determine the intent of the Legislature. One possible reason is that the judicial branch does not have a fundamental understanding of the legislative process.
In making determinations regarding which documents are properly considered by a court of law in determining legislative intent, the courts have shown a limited understanding of the legislative process and they need to have greater familiarity with the legislative process in order to properly determine what true and accurate statements of legislative intent are and how they are made by members of the legislative branch of government.

As we live and operate in a legal world dominated by statutes, it is of increasing importance for our courts to properly interpret those statutes and determine what particular legislative language means. Our state statutes sometimes have ambiguities and courts must look to the legislative history to determine what those statutory words were intended to mean. Sometimes a statute’s plain reading can be followed, but at other times, that may not be so easy and courts will have to rely upon the limited evidence of legislative intent that is available.

Chris Micheli is an attorney and legislative advocate for the Sacramento governmental relations firm of Aprea & Micheli, Inc. He also serves as an Adjunct Professor at McGeorge School of Law in its Capital Lawyering Program.

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