Wednesday, November 23, 2005


It has always been my strong belief that, although we are a nation of laws, we have far too many of them. Don’t argue with me – you know it’s true. Do you know how many laws there are on the books? 7.8 billion. Really. Okay, maybe not exactly. But it’s something close to that. We have a LOT of laws. So many, in fact, I’m probably breaking several right now and don’t even know it. And that’s in addition to the laws I KNOW I’m breaking.

Laws should be simple, so regular people can understand them. And irregular people, too. If you need a lawyer to explain a law to you, then the law isn’t really serving its purpose – which is to discourage you from doing something naughty. All today’s confusing, cryptically worded legal creations manage to do is keep lawyers in business – and we have enough idiots filing frivolous lawsuits to do that.

I think the Ten Commandments is a pretty good model. Religious influence aside, those are some pretty clear statements. Thou shalt not kill. Period. That’s it. That’s the law. There’s no “degree” to taking a life. No taking into account how long you may have thought about killing the person before actually going through with it. Killing is killing, and most people agree that, in most cases, it’s a bad thing. Speaking of a bad thing, what about the lost Commandment: Thou shalt not serve pickled eggs to unsuspecting dinner guests without warning. That’s just wrong.

Before I drill down further, let’s take a step back.

Keep going.

One more step.

Okay, good. From here we can really see what laws are all about. It is the basic intention of laws to keep order by telling us, the people, what it is okay and not okay to do. It is then the intention of our justice system to, with the utmost objectivity and fairness, of course, determine whether or not a law as been broken – and then decide what to do in the case that it has been. Some people have quipped that “Laws are made to be broken,” but those are the people your mother wouldn’t let you play with when you were young. Laws are most certainly not made to be broken – they’re made to be obeyed. At least for as long as they make sense. Here are a few actual laws that, for one reason or another, stood out to me as unnecessary. But you be the judge.

In Alabama, boogers may not be flicked into the wind, dominoes may not be played on Sunday, and under no circumstances is it permissible to wear a mustache that causes laughter in church. No joke, my friends – these are REAL laws.

You may not hunt camels in Arizona. In Illinois, if you don’t have at least one dollar on your person you can be arrested for vagrancy. (I’m breaking that one right now!) In Oregon and New Jersey, it’s illegal to pump your own gas. In California, it is illegal for animals to mate within 1,500 feet of tavern, school, or place of worship. There are countless others that I simply don’t have the time or energy to share here. But I think you’re getting my point. For more of this madness, check out this site.

Despite the absurdity and irrelevance of some of these laws, the people who create them are almost always well intended. But our country has become so bloated with statutes we’re drowning in a virtual sea of jurisprudentia. At some point we may want to consider simplifying things so that the legal system stops expanding like government and starts functioning as it was intended: to keep order by making it CLEAR what people can and cannot do. And that’s precisely where I come in. I am good at pretending I know what’s best for everyone and I also happen to have a real talent for naiveté. Think Kevin Kline in the movie “Dave.” These are my thoughts…

Like most people, I have questions. Why are settlements so out of control? Why does it take months and years for anything to get to trial? What’s the deal with appeals? Why do lawyers earn more than teachers? These are intended to be rhetorical questions...I know there are answers, but the point is that we can do better. Donnie Trump wouldn’t stand for bureaucratic inefficiencies of this magnitude. Who do we need to fire? Seems to me we need to start changing the rules a little bit, and in my opinion, it starts at the top.

AYNtK Legal rule #1: A LAW FOR A LAW. Congress shall pass no law without repealing two.

Let’s face it, we’ve got too many laws and regulations on the books, too many of which are simply obsolete or irrelevant. It’s time to start culling things down. We keep adding and adding and adding legislation, language that limits our freedoms and restricts the free market from providing products and services we want…and need. Is all of this regulation really necessary? Law has become the solution to every problem. Every little danger results in a new law. Every new concern brings new regulation to the table. Every perceived inequity inspires legislative debate. While most of it is well intended, we’re strapping our liberty in a straight jacket. So from now on, we don’t add a law without subtracting two. It sounds far-fetched – but is it really?

Consider how we came to have all of these laws in the first place. They’re blown like hot magma from a hyperactive volcano called Mt. Congress. Indeed, Congress is made up of people we call “lawmakers.” And when they’re not spending our tax money buying off foreign governments, deposing evil dictators, building unproven military technologies, and rebuilding other countries at the expense of our own, they’re busily passing laws that restrict our freedom. Don’t smoke in public. Don’t drive with a hand-held cellphone. Don’t crap on the airport’s luggage-return conveyer belt. (That was an awkward day for me) Don’t go here. Don’t do this. Don’t say this to this person if you mean this and you’re doing this. Don’t touch this after this time and before this time. Just don’t do anything dammit!

Please don’t take this the wrong way – or, at the very least, don’t e-mail me about it if you do. While proposing a major cleansing of our law books, I’m certainly not in favor of a lawless society. I just think we, as a society, tend to overreact sometimes in our zeal to address every niche concern – and the stock solution has been to create a new law. As a result, we’ve ended up with an increasingly complicated collection of rules that are hard to understand, harder to follow, impossible to enforce, and easy to manipulate if you’ve got enough MONEY earmarked for legal fees.

That’s right – I just played the money card. Dammit. Now I have to bitch about that, too. This is going to be long fucking post. Oh well – you’ll make time because you love me. You made it this far, didn’t you?

So let’s talk about money for a second. Aside from the superfluity of laws out there, the other big problem with our justice system is that, ironically, it’s not fair at all. You don’t need the law on your side to win a case – you need money. It helps to have the law on your side, but even if you’re clearly in the wrong, you can buy yourself a settlement, a verdict, or in rare cases, a jury…provided you’ve got enough green. Justice isn’t colorblind.

So that’s how it goes down day after day in the courtrooms of America. If you got the dough, you run the show. This is the case because, with money, you can afford to buy a better legal team. A dream team. A team that seldom loses because it knows how to work the system. It knows how to bend a jury. It knows how to leverage technicalities. Culpability is an afterthought these days – law is about who can play the game better, and who can PAY to play the game better.

Consider this. What if, in a stroke of absolute objectivity and fairness, ALL legal representation were decided by a blind draw? You and I could suddenly afford Johnny fucking Cochrane, while the Tyco execs get stuck with the new guy, Stu Pidasse. Our capitalist culture would never allow for it, but think about how quickly the field would level. Why should money dictate how well we are represented before the law? The justice system is supposed to promote fairness – but how fair is it that the quality of your case depends largely upon who you can AFFORD to argue it for you? Our free market system works great if you’re buying a can of Chunky soup or a new pair of Levi’s – but do people who have a lot of money really deserve better legal representation? Don’t answer that, Father Warbucks.

This is perhaps what I detest most about our legal system: Its vast subjectivity has made lawyers more important than the laws. Everything is so open to interpretation, you can argue pretty much anything you want. A creative lawyer with a talent for spin can almost always find ways to bend the meaning of a law to their liking. There’s always an angle. A chink in the armor. An Achilles’ heel. Here’s how.

Laws are documented in writing. Writing requires the use of language, and is therefore subject to the limitations of language. Now language has many components to it. Believe it or not, I actually took a course on language in college and was surprised how complex an animal it is. (Yes, I went to college - it was a long 7 years) Fortunately, a little something called grammar allows us to study its various components. There’s syntax, for example, which is the construction of words into coherent thoughts. This is more or less about getting words put together in the right order. Then there’s Lexis, which is about choosing the RIGHT words. The larger your lexicon, or vocabulary, the better you’ll be able to select the right words in forming meaningful sentences, written and spoken. And then there’s Semantics, which is the study of meaning. It’s this last one that wreaks havoc on the law.

There was a time when lawyers would take cases based on whether a case had legal merit. But more and more, lawyers are taking cases based on whether the case has money in it. They can afford to do this because, more and more, law is becoming about semantics. In other words, you can deconstruct a law word by word and argue its interpretation. Perhaps the most famous example of Semantic Dissection was when President Clinton was questioned about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky and he made the famous declaration that his answer would depend on what the intended meaning of the word “is” was.

Are the laws so poorly written that we need to parse their precise intention in this way? Actually, they are. Which brings us right back to the beginning. I think laws should be simple, so regular people can understand them. If lawyers are able to semantically reconstruct the meaning of a law in making their case, then the law clearly isn’t clear enough.

AYNtK Legal rule #2: K.I.S.S. A written law may not exceed 10 words.

Let’s keep it simple. Okay, 10 words may be a little unrealistic. But the point here is to write (and rewrite!) laws in the simplest terms, so they can easily recited by third graders. All of the riders and exceptions and additions create confusion and enable more semantic reconstruction. We’ve managed to dumb down everything else in society to serve the “lowest common denominator,” why can’t we do that with our legalese?

That’s a rhetorical question I think I’ll answer anyway: because a simple, efficient, easy-to-understand legal system would put a lot of smart people out of work.

Then again, we COULD use a few more teachers…

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