Since the formation of the modern American Republic, many laws have been passed. In the last 240 years, the laws have become cumulative, building upon one another. Now, the number of laws are uncountable, having more than 3,000 federal crimes with an unknown, uncounted, number of active laws. Such high number of laws make for several things, including: misinterpretation, contradiction, misrepresentation, and ignorance of the legal system.
Laws all require interpretation, but different people will have different: motivations, dialects, access to resources, knowledge, skills, etc. The differences in the way laws are interpreted lead to gaps in the legal system, which are solvable through simplification.
As time passes, so does language. Take the following piece from the first ever inaugural address (1):
Among the vicissitudes incident to life, no event could have filled me with greater anxieties than that of which the notification was transmitted by your order, and received on the fourteenth day of the present month. On the one hand, I was summoned by my Country, whose voice I can never hear but with veneration and love, from a retreat which I had chosen with the fondest predilection…
Compare this to Obama’s inaugural address in 2012 (2):
Each time we gather to inaugurate a President we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution. We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names.
Quite obviously, the language has changed. Would this not lead to a misinterpretation of the law?
Yes and no. Law has its own unique language, but even that changes.
Over time, changes in the law dictionaries occur. In the past 126 years, 10 different editions of Black’s Law Dictionary existed, nevermind all of the different dictionaries including: Merriam’s, Black’s, Nolo’s, Barron’s, and Oxford’s. All have different definitions. Without a truly definitive definition, there is no conclusive way of interpreting any single law without the use of precedent, which also relies on unreliable language.
Laws in existence are uncountable. They are not organized in a way that makes it commonly known which laws are still active and which are not.
Sometimes, laws and their precedent contradict, leading to individual interpretation.
Complexities in the legal structure make this interpretation more difficult.
Firstly, after several years of type, drafts of legislation ceased to include which laws the newest session voided. This creates a case where the laws in question undergo a process of reference to new, contradicting, and precedent setting laws and court cases.
Individuals then form decision based on the information they are able to find. But, individuals’ decisions are flawed by their own individual bias.
It is the goal of a lawyer to win a case. Therefore, it would be in the best interests of the lawyer to interpret laws in a way which will allow the lawyer to win, creating a new case, a new precedent, which all subsequent cases are meant to follow.
In this method, laws can change (if only a little) from their own intended goals.
Such ambiguities are a product of over complicated, overwritten legislation.
Take three simple guiding structures: “The Ten Commandments”, The Art of War, and The Code of Hammurabi. There is significantly less room for interpretation within these codes for conduct.
More importantly, there is less room for a loopholes.
The slogan “No Taxation without Representation” instigated the Revolutionary War. Today, every American pays 7.5%, while every employer must also match the 7.5%. I did not vote on this “social service.” My parents did not vote on this “taxation.” My grandparents did not vote to pay 7.5% of their salary for 40 years.
Mathematically speaking, given the financial track record, all citizens would be better off without this service.
How is it possible to justify that the Social Security tax is just? It equates to an inter-generational misrepresentation of the people in the American legal and Congressional system. Signed in 1935, the past three generations paid into Social Security, yet the leaders and primary signers who instigated the Social Security tax died before any of my grandparent’s births (3).
Though the formerly mentioned system is helpful to many, the larger issue at hand is that of governmental efficiency.
Program Efficiency and Accountability
With a top down methodology, programs that could be successful, aren’t. Congressional ability to perform valuable actions come from public support and response. The volume of laws drafted, proposed, and passed is too many even for Congress itself to maintain.
The educational field’s lack of federal financial oversight is one example of ineffective legislation. Since the 1960’s, American education has been under continuous reform, from New Mathematics, to No Child Left Behind, to the Common Core State Standards Initiative.
These programs have grabbed national attention, for better and for worse. Yet, with education in the spotlight, the following was still able to happen (4):
Federal agencies spent $3.1 billion on STEM education programs in FY2010. According to GAO, 173 of the federal government’s 209 STEM education programs (or 83%) administered by 13 federal agencies are duplicative to some degree with at least one other federal STEM program.
Over extension, and over delegation led to a gross oversight in federal spending. This happened in 2012, and once noticed, the mistake should have been corrected. But it wasn’t! The media should have picked up that regulation and federal spending oversight wasn’t occurring among educational programs. But it didn’t!
Mainstream media skipped all coverage of The Every Student Succeeds Act, the newest iteration of No Child Left Behind.
These are major failures in what ought to be the largest informer of the people and regulator of the government.
Ignorantia legis neminem excusat- Ignorance of the law is no excuse.
Individuals cannot be expected to know the law, when an unknown number of laws exist. These unreasonable expectations hold especially true when,
In a project that lasted two years, the [Justice] Department compiled a list of approximately 3,000 criminal offenses. This effort, headed by Ronald Gainer, a Justice Department official, is considered the most exhaustive attempt to count the number of federal criminal laws.
These 3,000 plus criminal laws are scattered among more than 23,000 pages of legislation (5). As an American citizen, one is responsible for knowing all of of those laws.
To put into perspective the absurdity of this expectation, only 19% of people know that the First Amendment protects religion (5); 1 in 3 recognize and can name The Bill of Rights (6); only 17% know who the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is (7).
Congress is meant to help provide solutions to existing laws; Congress should not create new ones. To fix the over-creation and existence of overreaching laws, perhaps laws could universally have, as some do, expirations, or dates by which their effectiveness must be reviewed.
Expiration would require laws to have accountability and reliability. Further, re-reviewing laws ensures that the laws which rule the people, have been decided upon by those who were elected by those in the present day, not those who have long since passed away.
Government should protect the needs of all people. By elected officials overlegislating, all that emerges is citizens’ confusion, a lack of civic involvement, and a general lack of representation.