Statutory construction continues to be an important issue to the Supreme Court of North Carolina.
Consider this statute: “Only a county director of social services or the director’s authorized representative may file a petition alleging that a juvenile is abused, neglected, or dependent.” N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-401.1(a).
In In re A.P. , the Court considered the question of which county director can file such a petition. The county in which the juvenile resides? Or, the county in which the parent resides? Or, any county with a connection to the family?
Justice Beasley, writing for a unanimous Court, employed an important canon of statutory interpretation to say that the answer is any of the above. The Court relied on the “whole-text canon, which calls on the judicial interpreter to consider the entire text.” Thus, the Court rejected the parent’s reliance on a different statutory provision that defines the term “director” as one from the county where the juvenile resides. The Court said that “this rigid interpretation” is “unsupported by the whole of the statutory text.” Further, other statutory provisions differentiate between “a county director” and “the county director” for a specific county. The Court would “presume that the legislature is capable of utilizing articles and other contextual clues” to indicate which meaning was intended. Because section 7B-401.1(a) does not expressly limit the applicable director to a specific county, it was proper in A.P. for the Mecklenburg County director to file a juvenile petition.
Next, consider the following statute in light of a U.S. Supreme Court opinion holding that mandatory sentences of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment:
The court shall consider any mitigating factors in determining whether, based upon all the circumstances of the offense and the particular circumstances of the defendant, the defendant should be sentenced to life imprisonment with parole instead of life imprisonment without parole.
N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-1340.19C(a) (emphasis added). Does that statute create a presumption of life imprisonment without parole, running afoul of the Supreme Court’s pronouncement?
In State v. James , the State Supreme Court said no. The Court relied on the foundational principles that “legislative intent controls the meaning of a statute” and that “a statute enacted by the General Assembly is presumed to be constitutional.” Here, the General Assembly expressly stated its intent to adopt the statute in compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, and the presumption of constitutionality would “militate against” an alternative construction of the statute.
Justice Beasley (joined by Justice Hudson) dissented and criticized the majority for finding “ambiguous” language in an unambiguous statute. The dissent relied on a different (and equally unassailable) canon of statutory construction—that statutes must be interpreted according to their plain meaning.
Interestingly, both the majority and the dissent relied on the whole-text canon utilized in A.P. They just reached different conclusions about what the other statutory provisions mean.
Finally, consider two statutes of limitations. One provides a three-year statute of limitations for “a liability created by statute.” N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1-52(2). The other provides a catch-all ten-year statute of limitations for any other “action for relief.” N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1-56. Which statute applies to a claim that a town has exacted unlawful fee payments?
In Quality Built Homes Inc. v. Town of Carthage , the Court said it was the former. The Court relied on another familiar canon that “where one of two statutes might apply to the same situation, the statute which deals more directly and specifically with the situation controls over the statute of more general applicability.” The plaintiffs alleged that the town had acted unlawfully by assessing a fee that was not authorized by statute—and therefore the statute of limitations regarding “a liability created by statute” would control.
So what is the moral of the story? I’m not sure. But as a practitioner, you should be familiar with and use the canons of statutory construction that best support your position.