Legalese May Be Legal But It Sure Isn’t Easy
By Michael A. Matteo
One of Shakespeare’s most memorable lines comes from Henry VI when Dick The Butcher, says, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” This is Shakespeare’s idea of Utopia, a world without those who make up the majority of Congress and who have created their own language to give their occupation a sense of purpose and the right to charge $300 for a phone call. After reading the amendments that were placed on the most recent ballot I would have to agree with Dick the Butcher.
Let’s take a look at the language of some of the amendments that appeared on the ballot in Florida this year. The most controversial amendment was this one which read as follows:
Constitutional Amendment Article I
Florida Marriage Protection Amendment
“This amendment protects marriage as the legal union of only one man and one woman as husband and wife and provides that no other legal union that is treated as marriage or the substantial equivalent thereof shall be valid or recognized.
The direct financial impact this amendment will have on state and local government revenues and expenditures cannot be determined, but is expected to be minor.”
In my college freshman English class the professor told me that the key to effective writing is that in addition to being grammatically correct it should be clear and concise. After reading this amendment I wonder if those who wrote it ever passed an English class in high school, let alone, college. We all know that this amendment had to do with gay people desiring to be able to legally get married so why didn’t they just write:
In favor of gay marriage ____
Against gay marriage _____
Instead we end up with marriage being defined as “one man and one woman” (as opposed to two men and one woman, two women and one man, a man and a goat, or a woman and something else, etc.).
My favorite part of this amendment is the disclaimer that states that there is no way to determine the financial impact of the amendment but then it states that the impact is expected to be minor. If there is no way of determining the impact, how can you say that the impact is expected to be minor?
I’m thinking there is some little old lady in Miami Beach reading this amendment over and over again and becoming confused over the part that says, “…and provides that no other legal union that is treated as marriage or the substantial equivalent thereof (attorney’s do love using ‘thereof,’ don’t’ they?) shall be valid or recognized” because she is totally perplexed at what they mean by “no other legal union that is treated as marriage…” Maybe she is wondering if it invalidates her own marriage of 50 years to a man who still leaves the toilet seat up after using the bathroom.
How about this one:
Article VII, Sections 3 And 4
Article XII, New Section
Changes and Improvements Not Affecting the Assessed Value of Residential Real Property
Which read as follows:
“Authorizes the Legislature, by general law, to prohibit consideration of changes or improvements to residential real property which increase resistance to wind damage and installation of renewable energy source devises as factors in assessing the property’s value for ad valorem taxation purposes.Effective upon adoption, repeals the existing renewable energy source device exemption no longer in effect.”
Talk about long-winded. Did these guys ever meet a run-on sentence they didn’t like? What amused me most about this amendment is the second sentence where they are basically stating that it repeals an exemption that is on longer in effect. Well, if it isn’t in effect why do we need to vote to repeal it? It’s the equivalent of killing someone twice. Wouldn’t it have been a lot easier to have written: For or Against using home improvements (specifically those that increase resistance to wind damage etc.) to raise a person’s property taxes?
Every amendment on the ballot was written in such a way that I am sure that many people voted for things they were against or vice a versa. Here is a novel idea for the next ballot: an amendment that forces legislators to write amendments in easy to understand and clear language so the average Floridian doesn’t need to bring his attorney with him to interpret what is on the ballot? Perhaps legislators need to go back to school and take an English class or two but that might not be what they want because as long as legalese dominates the ballot it keeps the public in the dark and perhaps that is their intention.
Mike Matteo is a resident of Tampa, Florida where he was a public and private high school teacher who taught classes in economics, history, psychology and philosophy. Mike has written twenty full-length feature films, has taught screenwriting at the University of South Florida. He has also written or co-authored three books and will be producing a play that he wrote later this year. E-mail him at: email@example.com.