This is generally the words used across the broadcast channels initially following the release of the landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court on cases before it concerning the legality of the piece of legislation commonly called “Obamacare.” The news was met with great joy within those groups opposing the legislation, and with anger from those who supported it.
“Further reading of Chief Justice Robert’s majority opinion shows that the initial reports on the Obamacare decision were wrong! The Court has found that Obamacare is constitutional. The majority in the 5-4 decision has upheld the legislation after all…Er…Uh…Well, at least it appears that…Uh…Let our legal team study it some more…We’ll get back with you when we know further about this landmark decision…”
The listeners/viewers were now thrown into confusion. They didn’t know what to believe. Just what had the Court decided? Had the Court allowed Obamacare to stand, or had it been struck down as unconstitutional?
It was some time getting this mess of confusion straightened out.
Why so much confusion? What was the problem? Can’t those reporting the news read a simple document and tell us what it says?
The answer is in the nature of legislation coming from all levels and branches of our government, and the fact that lawyers are the ones to write the laws, rules, regulations, ordinances, etc., under which we citizens are forced to live in modern America. Largely to protect their status and image within the general public, the law professionals have developed a language and writing style not commonly understood by the general population upon which it is imposed. This “legalspeak” jargon is why a lawyer must be involved in most every important legal agreement to interpret for us just what is written in the papers we are signing, the law we’ve been accused of breaking, the action we intend to take, etc. Ever try to read a legal document or the “fine print” of some offer of service? Notice that advertisements now contain rapidly spoken or a small-printed something called a legal disclaimer? Tell me that you easily understand such!
Has this always been the case? To find out, on into research we go…
The bill passed, commonly called “Obamacare” was actually named the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and was passed amid a firestorm of controversy in 2010. The bill was so confusing that even its length is in question. Most commentators report it as being about 2700 pages in length (approximately 1 million words, figuring 400 words to the printed page). However, Chief Justice Roberts in his majority opinion reports it as being 900 pages (that still approximates 360,000 words!). Whichever, legislators were given less than 48 hours to read this mess of legalspeak (the public even less time) before it was rushed to a vote at a time when few were watching the Congress. Indeed, the then Speaker of the House said of the bill, “We have to pass this bill, so you can find out what is in it.”…What!!!
But, let’s be fair. Has this always been the case? Back to research…
Perhaps the first really major decision of the U.S. Supreme Court occurred in 1803 in the case Marbury v. Madison, in which the Court, under Chief Justice John Marshall, took the power (not given it specifically in the Constitution) of “judicial review” – the power to decide upon the constitutionality of laws passed by the other two branches of the federal government. A printed transcript (the original was handwritten using pen and ink) of the monumental case extends to 5 printed pages (about 3,000 words). Compare this to the “Obamacare” decision which was spread over 193 printed pages (about 75,000 words)!
Our Big Three founding documents (the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights) were not much larger than the Marbury decision. Most all of these can, with some concentration, be easily read and understood by the average citizen – though, judging from their behaviors, one wonders about our government officials!
No, these highly educated lawyer-types have their own ways of writing and speaking, largely a mystery to the rest of us. Try this on: “the specific guarantees of the Bill of Rights have penumbras ‘formed by emanations from those guarantees that help give them life and substance,’ and that the right to privacy exists within this area.” (http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/penumbra)…Huh?!? Penumbras formed by emanations??? Even this partly paraphrased section leaves one scratching his head as to its meaning. Yet this type wording from the Justice William O. Douglas opinion in Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965 is unfortunately typical.
OK, so what to do about this problem? A couple of things will help.
First, require all laws, rules, regulations, ordinances, legal documents, etc., be written in English (which should be made the official language of our nation!) at a minimal level of reading to be required of all students in our schools before they may graduate. This would be at least a 6th Grade level (which is generally the level newspapers are printed in, if they wish to sell papers!). This level can be easily checked and determined by any of several computerized level-checking programs currently available, so “too hard to determine” is not an excuse for not requiring this.
Also, require that all of the above proposed laws, rules, regulations, ordinances, legal documents, etc., be readable by that same 6th Grade reader in ten minutes or less. This ends these huge legal messes that few if any read before they are imposed upon our people. Yes, it may mean breaking a proposed new law down into small parts which need to be individually read, debated, and voted upon before they become the law of the land…But would this be such a bad thing?
It occurs to me that if God Almighty can write in easily understood language, giving mankind the basic Ten Commandments from which all other of our laws descend, surely our highly educated legal-types can do a better job of creating the laws under which our people are governed.
It only took God about 317 words!
Randy Conover is a retired educator. He lives in Clermont County.