Tuesday, February 16, 2010

How much wisdom or lack thereof should go into statutory construction


In a California Supreme Court case released last week the court stated in predictable terms how it looked at construing a statute.

“To answer this question, we apply well-established principles of statutory construction to determine the Legislature‟s intent in enacting section 21167, “ „so that we may adopt the construction that best effectuates the purpose of the law.‟ ...We begin with the statutory language because it is generally the most reliable indication of legislative intent. If the statutory language is unambiguous, we presume the Legislature meant what it said, and the plain meaning of the statute controls. We consider extrinsic aids, such as legislative history, only if the statutory language is reasonably subject to multiple interpretations.” [citations omitted.]
Committee for Green Foothills v Santa Clara County, Calif. State Supreme Court, February 11, 2010, an environmental law case on how long a party has to sue after a notice of decision.

Try contrasting the above argument with that espoused recently by a California Appellate Court, February 1, 2010 (Judge Bruiniers) in Woodland Park v. East Palo Alto Rent Board (opinion of Judge Bruiniers), where the court relied in part on what the City should have thought about when it passed its ordinance. The court held that a landlord, “Woodland Park”, could not recover attorney’s fees from a suit against the City of Ea st Palo Alto. Woodland Park had successfully sued to require the city to accept a rent registration at the rate the City of East Palo Alto had published under its rent control law instead of a higher rate the City had passed but not published or billed its landlords. A part of the applicable City ordinance read: “In any civil proceeding that a landlord or a tenant initiates to enforce his/her right under this Ordinance, the prevailing party shall be entitled to reasonable attorney‘s fee as determined by the court.” The court’s opinion, interpreted the whole statute to render this language inapplicable, saying: “Given that the Board generally finances its expenses through the collection of registration fees that are paid by landlords (and indirectly, in part, by tenants) ….the electorate would have had good reason to insulate City from attorney fee awards like the one made here.”

Contrast the above application of ascribed wisdom in construing a conceivably ambiguous statute with the Tiburon v. Bonander court, (January 4, 2010) discussed earlier in this blawg when the court observed: “Counsel nonetheless urged that we uphold the validity of the Supplemental District in spite of its imperfections, reasoning in effect that no special assessment district could survive scrutiny if courts expected rigorous mathematical precision in the calculation and apportionment of assessments. We agree with the Town in principle. Any attempt to classify special benefits conferred on particular properties and to assign relative weights to those benefits will necessarily involve some degree of imprecision.” The court then went on to require what amounted to mathematical precision by a local assessment district, thereby making such districts vulnerable to litigation and scrutiny, I expect, few will survive.

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