In Virginia Senate, Petersen strives for legislative language that makes sense

One Virginia lawmaker is on a quest, one that unites members of both parties in irritation.

“I’m fighting a lonely and largely losing battle,” said Sen. J. Chapman Petersen (D-Fairfax City). “I don’t know if anyone else shares this obsession. It might only be me.”

A lawyer and onetime aspiring novelist, Petersen has made it his mission to edit other people’s bills.

“Petersen’s here to take out a period and add a semicolon,” Sen. Thomas A. Garrett Jr. (R-Louisa) joked when his colleague walked in last week.

“I get frustrated when laws and statutes are written in an obscure way, and it gets very difficult as a practicing attorney to figure out what the intent was, or what it means,” Petersen said. “So one of my goals is to simplify the law, so people can actually read it.”

Some might blame legalese, but for Petersen, it’s more often the opposite problem: laypeople making laws.

Non-lawyers “tend to be very cautious,” he said. “They restate things over and over, they include hypotheticals.” Of course, there’s also plain vanity, a desire to claim the most pages: “Putting a lot of language in the code is a form of self-importance,” he said.

Worst offenders? He cites a hunting bill this year that was “so convoluted it almost told you nothing.”

The offending lines: “this title and regulations adopted by the Board that are applicable to holders of the state resident hunting or nonresident hunting licenses required by subdivisions 2 and 3 of § 29.1-303,” which became “applicable state law and regulations.”

The bill passed both chambers of the legislature unanimously, with Petersen’s grammatical changes.

But his edits get little love: “I think people are usually annoyed with me: ‘Hey, that’s my legislation. Leave it alone.’ ”

A quirky lawmaker who favors bow ties and tan suits, Petersen is something of a wandering free agent in the legislature. He’s working with Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), one of the most socially conservative members of the legislature, on the Ben Franklin Liberty Caucus — a group formed to “protect the privacy and liberty of Virginians against unnecessary intrusion by government agencies and law enforcement.”

He was the only senator to vote against a bill criminalizing “revenge porn,” warning that it was written too broadly. (“Any person who, with the intent to coerce, harass, or intimidate, maliciously disseminates or sells any videographic or still image created by any means whatsoever that depicts another person who is totally nude, or in a state of undress so as to expose the genitals, pubic area, buttocks, or female breast, where such person knows or has reason to know that he is not licensed or authorized to disseminate or sell such videographic or still image is guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor.”)

Legislators in Virginia work part time; the session lasts 60 days and the pay is $18,000 a year. That means bill-writing is often done with the help of various lobbyists, who tend to produce what Petersen describes as “long and very tendentious statutes.” During hearings, it’s not unusual for the person who wrote a bill to be unable to answer questions about its impact.

As head of the Code Commission, Sen. John S. Edwards (D-Roanoke City) is on a separate quest to straighten out what he has called an “amoeba” of disorganized code that has not been fully renovated since 1950. That effort is about renumbering, not rewriting, but the goal is the same — to clarify the law.

And like Petersen’s quibbling, it will cause some irritation.

“Obviously if we go through with this, it will affect everything state government does, everything lawyers do,” said Robert Tavenner, director of the Division of Legislative Services. “From a technical standpoint it will be a nightmare.”

Not all lawyers prefer a law that’s very specific. Senate Minority Leader Thomas K. Norment (R-James City), who once gently mocked in a floor speech what he described as “Senator Peter­senesque wordsmithing,” said he considers Petersen a “very fine lawyer.” But personally, he prefers his law a little more “amorphous.”

“I like flexibility and malleability,” he said one day after session. Less precision gives lawyers, police and judges more discretion to interpret and apply the law as they think circumstances warrant.

Norment spoke after acknowledging to another reporter that a contentious bill regarding homeowners associations (sample line: “to the extent the declaration or duly adopted rules and regulations duly adopted pursuant thereto expressly so provide, or as provided in this section, to establish and adopt rule and regulation enforcement procedures, which procedures shall be limited”), was “certainly vague.”

Rachel Weiner covers local politics for The Washington Post.
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