On the same day the SJC issued the Bickart decision discussed in my last posting, the SJC issued a very thoughtful and comprehensive opinion that sets forth a nice blueprint of how to go about construing ambiguous statutes:
This is just a nice looking opinion all around. Aside from providing this interpretational blueprint, it includes a succinct section on the difference between an ambiguous statute and an unconstitutionally vague one (which reminds me of a Monty Python sketch involving ambiguity in a box, but I digress …).
An ambiguous statute is one that could mean more than one thing – it means X or Y. The Court looks at the statute and, applying all these rules of construction, decides which one it is, X or Y. The X construction is clear as is the Y construction; what was unclear before the Court rules was whether the meaning was X or Y.
An unconstitutionally vague statute is one which can't be fixed by construction. For example, if a statute says the applicant for an approval must "conserve natural beauty" – what does that mean? It's not an either/or proposition. Because that sort of mushiness allows the decisionmaker in each case in which the statute is applied basically to make the statute mean whatever it wants, the statute also violates the delegation clause of the Maine Constitution.