The Practice Book And Section 1-2z–Not!

This post is another in a series of Dan Klau mini-tirades against the judicial application of General Statutes § 1-2z–the statutory “plain meaning rule”–to legal texts that are not statutes.  As I have said before, and now say once again, the plain language of § 1-2z makes clear that it only applies to statutes.  Thus, it does not apply to administrative regulations, local ordinances or, in my opinion, the Practice Book.  Yet the state Supreme Court appears to disagree.

Consider the high court’s recent decision in State v. Jones, which involved a question about the meaning of Practice Book section 42-23(a).  That section requires that a trial court ‘‘shall submit to the jury . . . [a]ll exhibits received in evidence’ for review during its deliberations.”  The specific issue in the appeal was whether this Practice Book rule required the trial court to provide DVD-viewing equipment to the jury so that it could watch a digital video exhibit during deliberations in the jury room, or whether the court could have the jury view the exhibit in open court.  (The answer was the latter.)

In interpreting the Practice Book, the court said the following:

Our interpretation of the rules of practice is a question of law subject to plenary review. State v. Heredia, 310 Conn. 742, 755, 81 A.3d 1163 (2013). We interpret rules of practice in the same manner that we construe statutes. Id. We previously have set forth the principles that govern our interpretation. Id. As with statutes, if the text of a Practice Book provision and an analysis of its relationship to other related provisions yield a plain and unambiguous meaning,we apply that meaning to the case before us. Id., 755–56.

I agree that rules of practice and statutes are both legal texts and, as such, need to be interpreted.  I agree that the same general principles that govern the interpretation of statutes should apply to the interpretation of the court rules of practice.  And, while I’m not a huge fan of the plain meaning rule, I acknowledge the logic of applying that rule to the interpretation of the Practice Book.

So what its my gripe?  Take a look at State v. Heredia, cited in the block quote above.  There the Supreme Court also said that the rules of practice are subject to the same general principles of interpretation as statutes, including the plain meaning rule, but it went one step further and actually applied § 1-2z.  That is the error that I wish to highlight.  Once again, by its very terms § 1-2z applies only to statutes.  It has no formal role to play in the interpretation of rules of practice (or any other legal text that is not a statute).

Some may accuse me of making a mountain out of a mole hill.  Perhaps, perhaps not.  Here is my point.  The plain meaning rule existed as a matter of common law long before the General Assembly enacted § 1-2z in 2003.  The Supreme Court rejected that common law approach to interpretation in State v. Courchesne and the General Assembly then overruled that decision by enacting § 1-2z, but only with respect to the interpretation of statutes.   Moreover, assuming that the legislature has the constitutional authority to tell judges how to interpret statutes–an issue still subject to some debate–I seriously doubt that the General Assembly has the constitutional authority to tell the Supreme Court how to interpret its own the [Judicial Branch’s own] rules of practice.

My bottom line: If the Supreme Court wants to say that the plain meaning rule applies to its own  [the Judicial Branch’s own] rules of practice, it certainly can do so as a matter of common law.  What it should not do is say, or even suggest, that § 1-2z compels it to apply the plain meaning rule to the interpretation of the Practice Book.

2 Comments on “The Practice Book And Section 1-2z–Not!”

  1. A. Wright Burke, M.Phil. says:

    A few comments:

    1/ Of course the legislature can tell the courts how to interpret statues. The clearest example is statutory definitions of terms. Rules of interpretation are simply extensions of that logic: “our intention is what the plain meaning rule yields.”

    2/ The court may have adopted the plain meaning rule for interpreting rules of practice so as not to have two separate interpretative apparatuses going side-by-side for similar subject matter. It’s tough enough to have one set of interpretive rules for contracts and another for statutes. Why needlessly multiply entities? asked Occam.

    3/ Practice Book Section 42-23 (b) is not one of the Supreme Court’s “own” rules, as I understand it. That section neither governs appellate practice or procedure nor originated with the Supreme Court. When the Supreme Court interprets Superior Court rules, it is interpreting rules adopted by the Superior Court, a Connecticut constitutionally created entity separate and distinct from the Supreme Court. Presumably if the Supreme Court “gets it wrong” in interpreting a Superior Court rule, the Superior Court could amend the rule to “overrule” the Supreme Court decision and make clear what the Superior court originally meant by the misinterpreted rule. Your point remains entirely valid though: General Statutes Section 1-2z in no way requires the Supreme Court (or the Superior Court) to interpret Superior Court rules in the manner prescribed by that statute.

    4/ I could be wrong. Thanks for your always-stimulating blog operation.

    • Dan Klau says:

      Thanks for the response AWB! I made a correction to address your point no. 3, which was absolutely correct. I also agree with your assessment in your point no. 2. But I think a case can be made that different rules of construction should apply to different types of legal texts. Statutes are not contracts. Constitutions are not statutes. Different interpretative approaches may be justified depending on the nature of the text.

      I disagree, however, with point no. 1, at least with the emphatic “of course.” Yes, a legislature certainly can enact statutory definitions to assist the judicial branch in its interpretive task. But 1-2z tells judges what materials they can and cannot consider when interpreting statutes. I’m not sure that is the same type of creature as a statutory definition.

      As for your point no. 4, I disagree with the first sentence and appreciate the second one! Thanks for chiming in.

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