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Simplify Laws (a Legislative Issue)


Introduction

We are subject to a vast number of laws that exist at the local, state, national and international level. These laws exist not only to protect people and business from harm and to fund the government, but often specify how people should live their lives. In addition, various government agencies have issued numerous rules and regulations about how things should or must be done.

Complex

At one time or another, the average person today will need to know and to understand something about our traffic laws, income tax laws, financial laws, criminal laws, real estate laws, employment laws, contract laws and various other laws. For entrepreneurs and other business people, knowledge of a whole assortment of business, safety, health and accounting rules and regulations is also needed. Unfortunately, the volume, complexity and changeability of our laws, rules and regulations have made it impossible for anyone to know and to understand them all.

Our laws and legal system are so complicated that lawyers, judges, accountants and other professionals need to specialize in certain areas of our legal and regulatory systems. Even then, they must make it through years of schooling, pass the right tests and keep up to date on the latest changes. Even then, with all they have learned, legal professionals will still often need to do a lot of research into the laws and legal precedents when they work on legal matters.

We are told that ignorance of the law is no excuse, but with the vast number and complexity of our laws, how can we possibly know and understand them all? Of course, it’s just not possible, so we may need to get the right professional or combination of professionals to help and to advise us. In addition to legal professionals, we may also need experts in many other fields such as accounting, business, safety, engineering, environment and foreign affairs. Even then, the help and advice that we get is only as good as the people we hire. Of course, it would be much better if we could understand most legal matters without the need to hire expensive legal help.

Unclear

Along with being complex, some of our laws are vague or badly written. In some of these cases, law makers made these laws vague or overly complex so that they could slip something past us. When our laws are not clear, legal professionals may disagree on what should or should not be done or even whether or not the laws apply to a given situation. Even the best legal professionals may not be able to give us the best advice in respect to these laws.

When there are disagreements over the meaning of our laws, the matter may need to be taken to the courts. Even when courts make decisions, they are often appealed to higher courts where the previous decisions are frequently overturned. In some cases, appeals go all the way to the Supreme Court. Even there, the Justices do not always agree on a given decision, since many of their rulings are made by a 5 to 4 vote. Of course, it would be much better for everyone if the courts did not have to review so many of our laws in order to interpret their meaning.

Combined

We also have a problem with legislators combining a lot of different laws into a single bill, especially when they have nothing to do with the stated purpose of the bill. These large omnibus bills make it difficult for anyone to scrutinize them effectively and allow many laws to be slipped in that would never pass on their own. Of course, this is precisely why some law makers do things this way.

At the national and state level, earmarks are a big problem. Various legislators want to do something for their districts, so they slip some items into a bill that is already quite large. Some of these earmarks may be worthy on their own merit, but most only benefit the legislator and a few people in his or her district and cost most taxpayers a lot of money for little or no benefit. Earmarks stay in these bills, because legislators vote for other legislator’s earmarks in order to get their earmarks passed.

In other cases, two or more unrelated bills are combined so that a less popular law can be passed by riding the coattails of a popular one. It may be that both laws would have passed on their own merit, but the unpopular one might have been vetoed without the legislators having the votes to override it.

Outdated

Over the centuries, there have been a vast number of laws that have been passed in this country. With all the changes that are taking place in the way that we live our lives and do business, it is not surprising that many of our laws have become outdated. We still have many laws that deal with old technology or business practices that are no longer done or even needed. In most cases, these laws were just left on the books because no one thought about them or wanted to bother updating or removing them. For instance, Dubuque, Iowa recently still had a law requiring hotels to be equipped with hitching posts and water buckets for horses.

Many of our laws are also outdated in the sense that they may not cover the latest technology or business practices. Few people can tell us what the next new innovation will be or how it will affect our lives. For instance, who in the early 1990’s could have anticipated the impact that the internet and cell phones are now having on our lives. Since they were not anticipated, our laws were not written with them in mind, which leaves open the question as to how the old laws apply and even whether or not they do apply. What makes things worse is the fact that we often wait until there is a real problem before we bother to update our laws to cover something new.

Our legal system is greatly complicated by having all these outdated laws on the books. In some cases, it is harder for someone to understand how a law applies to a new situation or whether or not it even applies at all. Even when laws no longer apply, people may still need to wade through them all to find the ones that do still apply. In other cases, a law may still be perfectly valid, but no longer enforced. Of course, even if an old outdated law is not normally enforced it does not mean that someone, who may not like you, will not try to get it enforced.

Cost

The sheer number and complexity of our laws, rules and regulations imposes a heavy financial burden on our nation. Businesses need lawyers and accountants to keep up with changing legal and regulatory requirements and to do everything needed to ensure that the business is compliant, which can entail a lot of paperwork. Even our income tax laws are so complex that most people need help filling out their personal income tax forms. Of course, making a wrong decision in a legal matter can often be expensive, but so is hiring all these legal and accounting professionals. In addition, the government also needs a virtual army of people to process all the forms and information that must be submitted to it.

Criminal and civil legal matters can also cost a lot. People, who are charged with a crime, whether they are guilty or innocent, need legal representation. Of course, there are public defenders, but they are often overworked and less qualified that private lawyers. Our nation is also quite litigious. It often seems that everyone is trying to sue someone. Many people are bringing a lot of frivolous and nuisance lawsuits. Lost time, legal and court costs can be enormous. In addition, when plaintiffs win suits, the awards are often excessive.

Improvements

If law makers know what they want done, then they should be able to clearly spell it out in the laws they write. People should not need to have years of legal training in order to understand our laws. In addition, the courts should not have to interpret them and decide what they actually mean. Therefore, law makers should be required to make our laws simpler and easier to understand. There are a number of things that they can do in order to do a better job.

In order to make our laws easier to read, our laws need to be written more in plain English and less in legalize. Of course, if legalize is needed to make the laws more official, then they should also include appropriate plain English sections that the average person can understand. It might also make sense to run the law past a professor of English to make sure that it is well written. A good test of the readability and understandability of a law would be to have various different people translate the legalize version into plain English and the plain English version into legalize. Then a comparison of the results will tell us if the law’s meaning is at least consistent. Of course, it may take more time to write the law, but less time will be needed trying to interpret its meaning.

We also want the bills that include our laws to be simple enough for people to understand. There should be a requirement that only related legislation is included in a bill. For instance, military spending should not be included in a transportation bill. Of course, if taxes will need to be raised in order to pay for some transportation spending in a bill, then it would make sense to include the needed tax changes there as well. In order to ensure that only things that should be there are in the bill, each item should have an explanation as to why it is included. Then, before a vote is taken on the entire bill, votes should be taken on each item as to whether or not it should be included.

When our laws are outdated, people will not have the proper legal guidance as to what they should be doing. Therefore, we need to bring our laws up to date. If a law no longer applies, then we should remove it from the books. If a law does not cover all forms of technology or all business practices, then we should update it to include them. Although we cannot predict what new technology or business practice may be coming down the road, we now do have a much better idea about what is possible than we did when most of our current laws were written. Consequently, we should be able to make our laws more flexible when it comes to handling any new innovations that may come along.

While we are looking at our laws, we also want to take a look at how the courts have interpreted them. If the court’s interpretation is not what we want, then the laws should be rewritten so that what we want is clearly spelled out.

This review and update may require a significant amount of work, given how outdated some of our laws really are. In addition, this work may need to be spread out over many years, so that it can be completed and still allow for regular legislative business to go on. Obviously, this should not be just a onetime fix. Once our laws have been brought up to date, we will need to continue checking them on a regular basis to make sure that they remain that way. Since these periodic checks should not take that long, we could possibly do them every 5 years or so. Notes could even be kept to help future law makers know what laws might soon be outdated.

In upcoming subsections, I will talk more about some specific laws and legal matters. There, I will discuss some ideas to make our laws simpler and more understandable, and to keep them from becoming outdated.

Next Section

Church and State - How to keep our government and our laws secular, but protect people's Freedom of Religion.

Last Updated:
Sunday, November 26, 2017
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