In this post I explain why “Related Statutes, Provisions, and Terms” ranks 16th on my list of the “Top 21 Sources of Legislative History.” Click here for a brief overview of the basis for these rankings.
16. Related Statutes, Provisions, and Terms: In his article on the nature of legislative intent, Professor Richard I. Nunez discusses two instances in which litigants must hunt for legislative intent. According to Professor Nunez, the first such instance arises “when an administrator or court cannot read the statute and grasp its simple meaning because of shoddy draftsmanship or language errors.”
Legislative intent might also be necessary to resolve a case “when the statute is understandable but the case at hand was not anticipated at the time the statute was enacted.” The article continues, “It is possible for a legislature to have a clear and discernable intent concerning the social policy and the general purpose of the statute, and yet not have devoted a single moment of thought to the specific meaning of a word or phrase.” Where this is in fact the case, litigants may argue for their desired interpretation by referring to the court’s construction of related statutes, provisions, or terms.
For example, in Bailey v. United States, the Supreme Court grappled with the proper meaning of the term “use” as used in a statute criminalizing the “use” of a firearm while trafficking drugs. The case involved a routine traffic stop, which led officers to discover several undelivered bags of cocaine in the defendant’s car. After arresting the defendant, police then discovered a loaded pistol in the man’s trunk. Although the defendant had apparently taken the liberty to wrap his gun in a paper bag and tuck it away in his trunk, he was nevertheless convicted of “using” that firearm while trafficking drugs.
On appeal, the defendant successfully challenged his conviction for "using" a gun during a drug-related offense by pointing out that Congress had passed related gun laws expressly prohibiting the mere “possession” of a gun under similar circumstances. Therefore, his argument went, the fact that Congress used the term "use" to describe the conduct prohibited under some gun laws, but used the term "possession" to describe the conduct prohibited under other gun laws suggested that Congress did not mean for the two words to be used interchangeably. Based on this distinction, the defendant argued that he merely possessed the gun that he kept in his trunk while making his rounds, but that he certainly did not violate the statute's ban on using a gun while trafficking narcotics.
The Court agreed. Writing for the majority, Justice O’Connor illustrated the utility of turning to related statutes for meaning by asking the Court to “[c]onsider the paradoxical statement: ‘I use a gun to protect my house, but I’ve never had to use it.’ [Explaining,] ‘Use’ draws meaning from its context, and we will look not only to the word itself, but also to the statute and the sentencing scheme, to determine the meaning Congress intended.” After examining the meaning of the word “use” as defined or construed in related gun laws, the Court determined that the term “must connote more than mere possession of a firearm.” It supported this conclusion by listing a string of separate, but related, gun statutes that expressly prohibit mere “possession” of a gun.
Based on Congress’s incorporation of the terms “possession” in some gun laws and “use” in others, the Court held that Congress intended the term “use” in the statute at hand to refer to “active employment of the firearm”—something the defendant had not done by simply placing the gun in his trunk. In reaching this holding, the Court reasoned, “We assume that Congress used two terms because it intended each term to have a particular, nonsuperfluous meaning.”
The Court further supported its interpretation of the word “use” by pointing out that § 924(c)(1)’s sister provision, § 924(d), “provides for the forfeiture of any firearm that is ‘used’ or ‘intended to be used’ in certain crimes.” The Court noted that § 924(d)(1) applies even if the defendant merely intends to use a gun in his possession (and, even if he ultimately abandons his plan to use his gun), whereas § 924(c)(1) only proscribes the “use” of a gun. After pointing out this distinction between these related provisions, the Court explained that the latter provision must be construed to prohibit only actual use to avoid rendering the former provision’s intended-use language superfluous. The Court arrived at this conclusion by noting that “[a] provision that may seem ambiguous in isolation is often clarified by the remainder of the statutory scheme,” adding, “The difference between the two provisions demonstrates that, had Congress meant to broaden application of the statute beyond actual ‘use,’ Congress could and would have so specified, as it did in § 924(d)(1).”
As illustrated above, related statutes, provisions, or terms may help clarify the intended meaning of another statute, provision, or term that might otherwise seem ambiguous in isolation. Although relevant, I have nevertheless ranked this interpretive aid low on my list because my research suggests that cases like Bailey--in which the Court relied almost exclusively on related legislation rather than direct statements of legislative intent to define an otherwise ambiguous term--are relatively uncommon. Instead, decisions that venture into the realm of legislative intent typically do so by exploring more direct sources of legislative history, such as transcripts of floor debates, committee hearings, etc. As a result, “Related Statutes, Provisions, and Terms” finds its place on my list of the "Top 21 Sources of Legislative History" at number sixteen.
The following lists the “Top 21 Sources of Legislative History” (1 = most important; 21 = least important):
- Conference Committee Reports
- Committee Debates and Bill Mark-ups
- Committee Reports
- The Status of the Person Speaking—Sponsor, Committee Chairman, Floor Leader, Etc.
- Accepted and Rejected Amendments
- Floor Debates
- Planned Colloquy
- Transcripts of Discussions at Committee Hearings
- Prepared Statements on Submission of a Bill, in Committee Hearings, and at the Time of Floor Debates
- Revised and Amended Statements
- Actions on and Discussions About Separate Bills on the Same Topic
- Prior Relevant Administrative Action or Judicial Decisions, with or without Congressional Acknowledgement
- Executive Branch Messages and Proposals Whether from the President, Cabinet Secretaries, or from Independent Agencies
- Analysis of Bills Legislative Counsel
- Analysis of Bills by Relevant Executive Departments
- Related Statutes, Provisions, and Terms
- Dictionaries (click here)
- Statements by Executive Branch Administrators (click here)
- Statements and Submissions by Lobbyists (click here)
- Subsequent or Prior Unrelated, but Conflicting Legislation (click here)
- Recorded Votes (click here)
 Richard I. Nunez, The Nature of Legislative Intent and the Use of Legislative Documents as Extrinsic Aids to Statutory Interpretation: A Reexamination, 9 Cal. W. L. Rev. 128, 128 (1972).
 Id. at 130.
 516 U.S. 137, 138–39 (1995) (citing 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)).
 Id. at 139.
 See 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1) (2006).
 Id. at 143.
 Id. (“Had Congress intended possession alone to trigger liability under § 924(c)(1), it easily could have so provided. This obvious conclusion is supported by the frequent use of the term ‘possess’ in the gun-crime statutes to describe prohibited gun-related conduct. See, e. g., [18 U.S.C.] §§ 922(g), 922(j), 922(k), 922(o)(1), 930(a), 930(b).”).
 Id. at 144.
 Id. at 146.
 Id. (emphasis added).
 United Sav. Ass’n of Tex. v. Timbers of Inwood Forest Associates, Ltd., 484 U.S. 365, 371 (1988).
 Bailey, 516 U.S. at 146.