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Statutory Construction – “Shall” vs. “May”

Heritage Farms, Inc. v. Markel Insurance Company, 2012 WI 26; case activity

¶32  … The word “may” is ordinarily used to grant permission or to indicate possibility.  See The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 1112 (3d ed. 1992).  Accordingly, when interpreting a statute, we generally construe the word “may” as permissive.  Hitchcock v. Hitchcock, 78 Wis. 2d 214, 220, 254 N.W.2d 230 (1977); Schmidt v. Dep’t. of Local Affairs & Dev., 39 Wis. 2d 46, 53, 158 N.W.2d 306 (1968); City of Wauwatosa v. Milwaukee Cnty., 22 Wis. 2d 184, 191, 125 N.W.2d 386 (1963). By contrast, we presume that the word “shall” is mandatory.  Eby v. Kozarek, 153 Wis. 2d 75, 79, 450 N.W.2d 249 (1990); Karow v. Milwaukee Cnty. Civil Serv. Comm’n, 82 Wis. 2d 565, 570, 263 N.W.2d 214 (1978); State v. Rosen, 72 Wis. 2d 200, 205, 240 N.W.2d 168 (1976).  The distinction is particularly significant when the words “may” and “shall” are used in the same statutory section … .  When the words “may” and “shall” are used in the same statutory section, we “can infer that the legislature was aware of the different denotations and intended the words to have their precise meanings.”  Karow, 82 Wis. 2d at 571.

¶36  …  The cases in which this court construed the word “may” in a statute as “shall,” or vice-versa, must be understood in context. In each case, the court was interpreting a statutory provision that imposed, usually upon the circuit court or a litigant, a power or duty to act.[8]  The issue then was whether the power or duty to act was discretionary or mandatory.  To make that determination, we considered such factors as the statute’s objectives, the statute’s history, the consequences that would follow from the alternative interpretation, and whether the statute imposed a penalty for the failure to exercise the power or duty.  See Eby, 153 Wis. 2d at 80; Karow, 82 Wis. 2d at 571-72; Rosen, 72 Wis. 2d at 207.

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