Many statutes are straightforward and easily understood, and others are more complicated. Cross-references, dependent subdivisions, and exceptions to a statute's application can make the meaning difficult to follow.
Here are a few tips:
The heading establishes how the section fits into the organization of the entire code.
Think of the statute as a unit of law that is part of a series of units of law, and scan the contents to see what sections precede and follow the section you are reading. If there is a short title section (usually at the beginning of the chapter or subchapter), read it.
A definitions section, if present, is usually found at the beginning of a chapter or subchapter. A definition may be used in the statutes to avoid repetition of a long term — for example, to indicate that "department" in a particular section refers to the Department of State Health Services. Make sure you understand references to general terms like "department," "agency," or "executive director."
Look for breaks in the statute text. Assume everything in the statute has meaning, including punctuation and format.
Legislative drafters use important action words such as "may," "shall," or "must" to indicate whether a provision requires or authorizes some action or condition.
|Shall||Signals a duty imposed on a person or entity|
|May||Signals a privilege or discretionary power|
|Must||Signals a condition or a prerequisite|
|Is entitled to||Signals a right, as opposed to a discretionary power|
|Shall not / May not||Signals a prohibition|
Exceptions are signaled by keywords such as "certain," "only," "under," "over," "more than," "less than," "if," and "unless." "And" or "or" connecting a final element to the rest of a series often indicates whether all or only one of the elements of the series are needed to satisfy conditions set by the statute.
Do not rely only on common understanding for the meaning of a word about which you are unsure, and do not assume that a word (e.g., "person") has the same meaning that it has in everyday conversation. Use statutory context and definitions to determine the precise meaning of the word.
Legislative drafters avoid repetition of text by cross-referencing other statutory provisions. If a cross-reference is to an entire chapter or subchapter, at least read through that chapter's or subchapter's table of contents and definitions section to understand the context.
Try reading this example initially without opening the cross-reference.
Sec. 93.012. EFFECT OF CLOSING. (a) A day on which a savings bank or one or more of its operations are closed under Section 93.011 during all or part of its normal business hours is considered to be a legal holiday to the extent the savings bank suspends operations.
Sec. 93.011. EMERGENCY CLOSING. (a) If the officers of a savings bank determine that an emergency that affects or may affect the savings bank’s offices or operations exists or is impending, the officers, as reasonable, may determine: . . . .