Lileks: Laws in plain language? That's lofty rhetoric

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 6, 2014 - 7:09 PM

Gov. Mark Dayton has decreed that new laws should be simple and easily understood. A bureaucrat who got the assignment probably came up with these guidelines:

“The employment of obfuscatory and otiose rhetoric to enshroud a statute with a scrim of deliberate ambiguity shall be deaccelerated through gradual diminution of polysyllabic terminology.”

Which was probably met with scowls. Try again.

“Er … Laws shall positively be not unclear.”

I suppose that’s as good as we’ll get.

It’s not easy to make laws plain. Let’s take some simple examples. If you hit someone on the head, that’s assault. If you say you’re going to hit them on the head, that’s battery. If you say you’ll hit them on the head with a battery, and then you do it, that’s assault and battery with a battery.

Straightforward stuff. Once you start getting into the details, things get complicated. And you want the details. You don’t want a code that says “Failure to maintain property shall result in a fine of not less than 10 percent of the property’s value” without defining “maintain,” because then you have no defense against an inspector who tickets you for a mailbox with a squeaky hinge. Hey, we’ve had some complaints. Just doing my job.

Nevertheless, simplification is a laudable effort. I went looking through the state’s laws and found some remarkable statutes. If a million monkeys typed forever, eventually they would produce the works of Shakespeare. If they went to law school, they would produce this:

270C.927 INCREASE IN NET TAX CAPACITY

If the final order and judgment in a hearing before the commissioner under section 270C.92, or any appeal thereof, results in raising the net tax capacity of the property affected by the proceedings, the county officers shall, for the next ensuing year, in addition to the regular taxes levied for such ensuing year, levy, extend and spread against such property, if real property, or against the owner thereof, if personal property, and if anyone is still reading this we’d be surprised, a tax equal to the difference, between the taxes actually levied and extended against such a property, or owner, or an aggravated ostrich in full estrus, for the year in question, and the taxes which should have been levied or extended against such property, or owner, at the increased net tax capacity as finally determined.

In other words: “Pay up.”

Did you spot the things I added? No? At some point the verbiage turns to a sheet of ice and your eyes just skate to the part where you go to jail. I don’t know how you simplify any tax laws without simplifying the code itself, but that will happen when pigs fly. (Tax Statute 43-6b: It shall be illegal for a pig to fly, or to cause, induce or elevate a pig in a manner that suggests the suspension of gravity.)

The other part of the governor’s initiative: Get rid of 1,000 laws. Great! I’ve often said that every law that’s passed, another must be struck — and they have to be equal. You can’t say “if a new construction intended for dwelling has a fireplace, it shall be a gas insert” and repeal “it shall be illegal to shave a donkey on the Sabbath” or something equally archaic.

How many laws do we have? You may think it was simpler back in the frontier days, but sorry: The territorial statutes of 1851 are as numerous as they are dense. Gambling: “Every person who shall deal cards at the game called faro, pharo, or forty-eight, whether the same shall be dealt with fifty-two, or any other number of cards, and every person who shall keep to be used in gaming any gambling device whatever, designed to be used in gaming.”

End result: People played ffharo with 49 cards.

Back to the simplification idea. If it had been around in 1858, the aforementioned law would just say “Boys, if I catch you playing faro, it’s the pokey.” What about now, though? Medical marijuana statutes will be a good chance to try this out:

Having weed is OK if you have a note from your doctor. A real doctor, not someone who got an online degree from the University of Narnia or something. (b) You can’t sell it or share it. If you do, you’ll get in trouble. (3) (sorry, sorry I meant “c”, I’m kinda buzzed right now) If you claim you need it for a reason that turns out to be bogus, you will lose the right to have it. “Bogusness” means you say you have anxiety issues that keep you from leaving the house, and then we find you have, like, a channel on YouTube dedicated to your skydiving excursions, OK? So don’t. (d) There was something else but I forgot, so let’s just say “be cool.”

In short, it’s a fine initiative, and we look forward to a world with simpler, fewer laws. But if they can’t find 1,000 laws to eliminate and are stuck at 999, that’s fine. Some laws are there for a reason.

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