Undefined Words Given Ordinary Meaning (SB 1085 / HB 1111)


This definitions bill requires that undefined words in the Tennessee Code be given their natural and ordinary meaning, except when a contrary intention is clearly manifest.


A broad definitions bill that could have a similar effect as SB 30 but would apply to any number of words that private litigants might want courts to redefine.


Increasingly, courts are being called on to decide how to interpret statutes and finding “reasons” to depart from the above rule of interpretation upon which legislators have been able to rely in wording and enacting statutes.

One clear example is the U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of the term “federal exchanges” under the Affordable Care Act, for which tax subsidies were permitted, to mean “stand or federal exchanges.”

Another example is marriage. States did not think it necessary to define marriage in terms of a man and a woman because the definition was assumed. States eventually realized that courts, set on making policy, would not give words, previously undefined, their normal and natural meaning and began to pass Defense of Marriage statutes.

More recently in Tennessee, a Knox County judge ruled that the word “husband” in a statute expressly related to a husband and wife no longer referred to a male but was a gender-neutral term and should be interpreted to mean “spouse.”

Because it is impractical, if not impossible, to go through the Code to define all the words in a statute that may not be expressly defined in order to make sure that courts do not define those words in ways the Legislature never intended, this bill tells courts that the words the Legislature uses mean what everyone thinks they mean, not something else.


Objection: The bill violates the separation of powers doctrine by telling the judicial branch what to do.

Answer: The Legislature has the power to define the words it uses in its statutes. To say
otherwise, the objectors can only mean that they think courts should be able to give words meanings different from what the Legislature intended. This is not judging, this is legislating. If the normal meaning of a word makes a statute unconstitutional, then SB 1085 does nothing to interfere with a court’s power to hold the statute unconstitutional.

Objection: There is already a law that takes care of specific terms in the Tennessee Code.

Answer: There is a statute that defines a number of different words, but no statute
accomplishes this statute’s purpose.


Stevens in the Senate, Farmer in the House


Full Text: Senate Bill / House Bill


Signed by the Governor 5/5/17. Public Chapter 302.