Statutory Interpretation: Sometimes It Is Easier Than It Appears.


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Image Copyright jonasj (Flickr), 2011


By Joshua D. Jones, J.D.

I.              Introduction

Suppose that every morning you woke up and made yourself a pot of coffee. But did you really make that coffee? You put the coffee grounds into the coffee pot, then you poured the water in, and finally you turned on the coffee pot. The water was then siphoned through the coffee grounds and brown (coffee) water inevitably ended up in the pot. You had to be the one that made the coffee, right? Technically, one could argue that it was the coffee machine that made the coffee and you simply helped perpetuate its process.

This conundrum arises because of the word “make” and how society defines it. Typically, if you go into a dictionary, and look up a word such as “make,” there will be a laundry list of sentences explaining its meaning, based upon the context that the word is used within the English language. Of course the coffee scenario above does no more than stir up a little common debate about semantics; however, imagine you were facing a twenty-year prison sentence if it was found that you were the one who made the coffee. In People v. Hill, the Michigan Supreme Court was faced with that decision, yet rather than determining who made the coffee, the Court determined whether someone “made” (or “produced”) child sexually abusive material.1

The Michigan Supreme Court made a massive and elementary error when it held in Hill that the defendant merely possessed child sexually abusive material.2 The decision inevitably limited the applicably of § 750.145c(2), and now it only applies to individuals who originally create child sexually abusive material.3 However, this paper will show that, the Michigan legislators clearly intended § 750.145 to include individuals who reproduce the material, which includes Hill’s acts.4

Section II(i) will outline the history of statutory interpretation, specifically in Michigan. Sections II(i) and II(ii)(1-3) will discuss the legislative history and precedent surrounding § 750.145c. Sections II(iii)(1-2)(a-b) will then walk through the procedural history of People v. Hill, which includes two Court of Appeal decisions, a Federal Court decision, and multiple Supreme Court decisions. Section II(iv) will discuss the most recent Supreme Court opinions influenced by the Hill case. Section III will then explain the proper analysis of Hill and ultimately set-up Section IV, the proper interpretation of § 750.145c(2)

II.              Background           

i.     Statute Interpretation

When determining the meaning of words and phrases used within a statute, courts rely on the rules of statutory interpretation.5 The goal of interpretating a “statute is to ascertain and give effect to” the legislature’s intent.6 The first step in interpreting any statute is to review and read the language of the statute, and if the language is clear or unambiguous then no further anaylsis is needed.7 When the statute contains undefined terms they should be given their plain and ordinary meaning while attempting to remain “consistent with the legislative aim [used when] enacting the statute.”8

If the language within a statute is ambigious, a court may go beyond the words provided in the statute in order to ascertain the legislator’s intent.9 An ambiguity exists when the language “used in its particular context has more than one common and accepted meaning.”10 However, an ambiguity is overted when “common words [are] used in their ordinary fashion,” and thus leads to only one reasonable conclusion.11

The rules of statutory interpretation should only “serve as [a] guide . . . to assist the judiciary in determining the intent of the legislature.”12 On the other hand, the words and phrases within a statute are the “most reliable [proof] of the [l]egislature’s intent” and “every word, phrase, and clause” within the statute should be given effect.13 Further, a “[c]ourt must presume that every word has some meaning” within the context of the statute.14 However, it should “avoid a construction that would render any part of a statute surplusage or nugatory” while maintaining the intended “grammatical context, unless it is clear that something different was intended.”15

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