Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Good case for rules of construction and when they are (and are not) applied

The First DCA posted this opinion on July 5 in Dep't of Revenue v. Lockheed Martin. It's a pretty boring tax case, but it turns on an issue of statutory construction. The opinion includes this very good paragraph on when plain meaning makes it appropriate for a reviewing court to intepret a statute (or ordinance, or comprehensive plan policy) itself, rather than resorting to either the rules of construction or deference to an agency interpretation:

The issue of statutory construction is subject to de novo review. State v.
Burris, 875 So. 2d 408, 410 (Fla. 2004) (citation omitted). Legislative intent
is the polestar that guides a court’s statutory construction analysis. State v.
J.M., 824 So. 2d 105, 109 (Fla. 2002) (citations omitted). When a statute is
clear, a court may not look behind the statute’s plain language or resort to
rules of statutory construction to determine the legislative intent. Burris, 875
So. 2d at 410; see also Overstreet v. State, 629 So. 2d 125, 126 (Fla. 1993)
(noting that legislative intent must be determined primarily from the language
of a statute). This is so because the Legislature is assumed to know the meaning
of the words used in the statute and to have expressed its intent through the
use of the words. Id. It is only when a statute is ambiguous that a court may
resort to the rules of statutory construction. BellSouth Telecomms., Inc. v.
Meeks, 863 So. 2d 287, 289 (Fla. 2003). “‘Ambiguity suggests that reasonable
persons can find different meaning in the same language.’” State v. Huggins, 802
So. 2d 276, 277 (Fla. 2001) (quoting Forsythe v. Longboat Key Beach Erosion
Control Dist., 604 So. 2d 452, 455 (Fla. 1992)). Administrative construction of a statute, the legislative history of the statute’s enactment, and other extraneous matters are properly considered only when the construction of a statute results in a doubtful meaning.
Donato v. Am. Tel. & Tel. Co., 767 So. 2d 1146, 1153 (Fla. 2000); see also Fajardo v. State, 805 So. 2d 961, 963-64 (Fla. 2d DCA 2001) (explaining that although virtually every English sentence contains some level of uncertainty, rules of statutory construction are reserved for cases in which a fair reading of the statute leaves a court in genuine doubt about the correct application of the statute).

So, no deference to a local agency construction of a zoning code or comprehensive plan unless the language is ambiguous (not just vague!).

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