Whereas, laws have heretofore been written in language that is almost impos- sible to understand,Now therefore, the Montgomery County Council is trying to get rid of the legal mumbo jumbo and become one of the first jurisdictions in the country to write its laws in plain English.
A council committee, risking the wrath of lawyers and bureaucrats, has just finished a manual on plain language, which the council will vote on soon.
If it passes, the word "whereas," the traditional introduction to laws everywhere, would be banned. Henceforth, herein, hereinbefore, hereinafter, thereunto and pursuant to would also be banished thereinafter.
Chopping out the flowery legal language will make the lawbooks a good deal shorter, committee members predict. "It cuts out an awful lot of stuff -- and the result of all that extra stuff in there is confusion," said Robert Stumberg, a lawyer and law professor working on the plain language project.
With the manual adopted, the next step would be rewriting the 2,000-page county code.
With help from psycholinguistic experts, the lawyers for the council have started going through the code -- estimated to contain 2,020,000 words -- section by section. They expect to be finished by 2000. Each rewritten law would have to be passed by the council, and the old one would have to be repealed. At the same time, the laws would be arranged in logical order.
During their research, the lawyers discovered that the Historic Preservation Commission, the Fire and Rescue Commission, the Agricultural Advisory Board and several other county departments had, legally, ceased to exist. The council quickly passed legislation to correct those problems.
The council also repealed a 1920s law that made it illegal to dance after midnight in public establishments. It is now tackling a law that defines swimming pools so broadly that one might, technically, need a permit to take a bath.
Other oddities on the books are a 1918 law permitting the registrar of wills to start a new record book and a 1955 measure that makes it illegal to measure shoe size with X-rays, a practice long since abandoned.
"A lot of these things seemed to make sense at the time, I suppose," said lawyer Mark Hessel, who is working on the plain language project. But not always. "Sometimes, as an attorney reading it seriously several times, you can't figure out what the hell they're talking about."
To illustrate, Hessel cited but did not explain the following provision:
"Whenever in this code or in any ordinance, resolution, local law or regulation of the county any act is prohibited or is made or declared to be unlawful or an offense, or whenever in such code or ordinance, resolution, local law, rule or regulation the doing of any act is required or the failure to do any act is declared to be unlawful, where no specific penalty is provided therefor, the violation of any such provision of this code or any ordinance, resolution, local law, rule or regulation, shall be punished as a Class A violation as set forth in section 1-19 of this chapter."
"We'll be tackling that one very shortly, I think," said Hessel.