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Are questions on topic that ask for the purpose/motivation/rationale behind a law?

  • what is the rationale behind fair use?
  • why is the age of consent X?
  • why are juveniles treated differently than adults in criminal law?
  • what is the purpose of the inheritance tax in the US?
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They definitely can be on-topic. The key is whether they request, or amend themselves to, non-opinion-based answers (by which we mean answers based on authoritative opinions when the question is not a matter of fact).

For example, you gave a helpful answer to the age-of-consent question, outlining many of the issues and considerations that motivate those laws. It is conceivable that even better answers exist: For example, perhaps someone can find legislative debate or signing statements that include the considerations or reasoning that led to a particular statute. Or a significant court case involving such laws might feature an illuminating – and authoritative – judicial opinion.

Another standard I've previously suggested is, where applicable, that an ideal answer on Law.SE would read like a good law-review essay. Therefore, if you can imagine reading an essay addressing the question in your favorite law journal, then I'd say the question is on-topic.

  • Okay, but at best, legislative debate would only reveal the reasoning of individual legislators, and not the reasoning or motivation of the legislative as a whole. – user3851 Jul 6 '16 at 21:18
  • @Dawn - True, as you aptly explain. But if legislative debate citations are good enough for Supreme Court opinions, I'd argue they're good enough for Law.SE answers ;) – feetwet Jul 6 '16 at 21:20
  • Sounds reasonable. I would just avoid in our answers taking legislative debate to be determinative of what the legislative intended, and jusf let it speak for itself. I.e we could say what certain members or committees stated their individual motivations to be, etc. If case law has taken certain statements of motivation at face value, we can say that too, especially if it was a basis on which they decided a question of statutory interpretation. – user3851 Jul 6 '16 at 21:29
  • @Dawn - Agreed. Note also that to date I can't recall reading any Law.SE answers that directly cite legislative debate, so we might put this into the "It would be great if this became a problem" category. – feetwet Jul 6 '16 at 21:34
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    To add another point to this post, there are many times when the rationale for the legislation is included in the legislation itself. Generally, it can be in the preamble or the beginning sections, and it can even be inferred (in the case of criminal laws) from various sentencing principles and aggravating/mitigating circumstances. Of course, the actual opinions of judges and law-makers are relevant, and I can see great questions and answers coming from this as well. – Zizouz212 Jul 7 '16 at 0:59
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I personally abjure appeals to legislative intent in interpreting the law, for zillions of reasons (there is no such thing as collective intent, only individual intent; intent presupposes knowledge and it is well-established that legislatures usually don't even have knowledge of the content of a bill). Nevertheless, it is also well established that courts do appeal to legislative intent in interpreting the law. For that reason, a question about legislative intent behind a bill is no more off-topic than a question of the actual wording.

"Why" questions get at two issues: the overall purpose of law, and the goals of a set of law-makers. The former plays a particularly big role in common law, which is not just the at-will application of a corpus of precedent to a specific case, it is the application of particular philosophies of the purpose of law, hedged in by rules established by precedent. I think this is most obvious in thinking about law as applied to property rights. There is a purposive presumption underlying law that the law should protect individual property rights, and that explains a huge amount about IP law – knowing that helps you interpret what "The Law" says, when the actual wording sucks.

  • "I personally abjure appeals to legislative intent in interpreting the law, " Even if you believe that it's not good to use intent to interpret the law, finding out the intent of a law may still be interesting - for example to understand how morals and perceptions shape laws, or to help with a campaign for / against a specific law. – sleske Jun 13 '17 at 11:06
  • And thus, such questions are quite appropriate for Politics SE. – user6726 Jun 13 '17 at 14:33
  • True - these questions probably are an edge case. – sleske Jun 14 '17 at 6:39
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The only issue I can see with this kind of question is that it can potentially stray into politics, which is a different topic. But as long as the question is 'Why did X enact Y' or 'What are some reasons why anyone would enact Z' rather than 'Should ABC', then we're well within what would be rightly regarded as the study of law.

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The can be on topic.

For example, most (all?) Australian states have an Acts Interpretation Act, which is basically the legislature making clear their intention to the executive and judicial arms of government (and to themselves) what they mean when they write a law. The NSW Act says:

33 Regard to be had to purposes or objects of Acts and statutory rules

In the interpretation of a provision of an Act or statutory rule, a construction that would promote the purpose or object underlying the Act or statutory rule (whether or not that purpose or object is expressly stated in the Act or statutory rule or, in the case of a statutory rule, in the Act under which the rule was made) shall be preferred to a construction that would not promote that purpose or object.

34 Use of extrinsic material in the interpretation of Acts and statutory rules

(1) In the interpretation of a provision of an Act or statutory rule, if any material not forming part of the Act or statutory rule is capable of assisting in the ascertainment of the meaning of the provision, consideration may be given to that material:

and then goes on to list a bunch of non-exclusive material including relevant reports tabled in Parliament before the Act was made, treaties referred to in the Act, the Minister's reading speech etc.

Since the interpretation of the law requires that the object (or "purpose/motivation/rationale behind" it) be considered it is entirely on topic.

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