LawProse Lesson #247: What is the title-and-headings canon of construction?
It’s the principle that the title and headings within a legal instrument are permissible indicators of meaning—unless the instrument expressly disclaims their influence. Contractual drafters often include a version of this housekeeping clause: “Headings are for convenience only and do not affect the interpretation of this agreement.” Many states have a constitutional provision (called the title-body clause) prescribing the relationship between a statute’s title and its implementing language. Likewise, interpretation acts often specify the interpretive status of headings. If you’re ever relying on a title or heading, you should study the governing rules within your jurisdiction—and determine whether they govern private as well as public legal instruments. If no rules prescribe the interpretive effect of a title or headings, federal courts will look to those only to shed light on an ambiguous word or phrase. If a statute is not ambiguous, the courts generally won’t allow a title or headings to limit the plain meaning. Further reading: Antonin Scalia & Bryan A. Garner, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts 221–24 (2012).