When Mortimer D. Goldstein wanted to show his students at the National Defense College an example of wretched and confusing prose, he read a 307-word sentence contained in the bylaws of his own condominium.
Simply put, one of the condominium bylaws at Leisure World, the huge retirement community in Montgomery County, says: Make no alterations to the exterior of your condominium or any structural changes to the interior.
What offended Goldstein's respect for clarity in English was that the message is delivered in a torrent of words, rather than in short, declarative sentences. Goldstein argued that he and other legal laymen could barely make it past the first comma, nevermind understand the full meaning of the important condominium rule.
Goldstein, a former State Department employe, brought his anger here three years ago, when he began a one-man crusade to convince the Maryland General Assembly to erase the gobbledygook and legalese in local condominium documents.
He is still trying. This year, for the third year in a row, the state Senate and House of Delegates will consider joint resolutions that encourage authors of all condominium documents to write in a "clear, concise and coherent manner, using sentences and paragraphs of moderate length" and "words of commonly understood meanings."
Many critics of the plain-language campaign praise the goal, but say General Assembly resolutions -- which have no force of law -- are largely empty gestures. These critics also say it would be virtually impossible to craft a new state law requiring lawyers and developers to write condominium papers in plain English.
Plain-language advocates contend that bylaws should be written clearly because those and other documents are in effect the "constitution" of a condominium association, the rules to live by.
"The legal aspects of living in a condominium -- if you're conscientious -- are absolutely fearsome," said Goldstein, who is in his late 60s and has lived at Leisure World since 1977. "We need a resolution to put some leverage on the legal profession to write documents that an average person has a chance of understanding.
"Otherwise, you can't be sure what . . . you're doing unless you have a lawyer at your elbow 24 hours a day."
Goldstein said the 307-word bylaw sentence was written in 1976 by attorneys for the developer of Leisure World, Rossmoor Inc. The lawyers, whose names appear on a copy of the bylaw filed in Montgomery County land records, could not be reached for comment, nor could a spokesman for the current owners of the 5,000-unit Leisure World.
Proponents of the legislative resolution said plain-language provisions will be increasingly important if the state's condominium market stays healthy, as current signs indicate. Before 1981, the Maryland Secretary of State's Office registered and approved 150 condominium developments -- 8,792 units -- across the state. Between July 1981 and this year, the state registered 522 new developments with another 30,974 units.
Montgomery County has the highest number of units in the state -- 10,600 in 58 developments. Prince George's County has 26 developments and 3,794 units. Worcester County, which includes the Ocean City resort market, has at least 7,880 units in 360 projects, according to the secretary of state.
"Plain language is a noble goal, no question," said Thomas F. Filbert, a member of the Secretary of State's Office who is staff counsel to the Governor's Commission on Condominiums, Cooperatives and Homeowner Associations. The commission, which is scheduled to expire next month, has scrutinized state condominium law for several years and has not grappled with the plain-language issue, Filbert said.
"One problem I see in cutting down on the legal terminology is that it then may take more words to say the same thing in a document," Filbert said.
Barbara Gregg, a commission member who also is Montgomery County's consumer affairs chief, echoed Filbert, saying, "The resistance by some attorneys to plain language is understandable. You get used to saying things in certain ways." But, she added, her office supports Goldstein's proposed resolution. "Getting the sense of the legislature would be a good step," Gregg said.
A spokeswoman for the Bureau of Condominiums in Florida -- where 2.5 million people live in condominium units -- said the state has no requirement for clear English even though there are requests for such laws. "It would be hard to legislate how people write their documents," the spokeswoman said.
Which is precisely the point made by Del. Joseph E. Owens (D-Montgomery), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee that killed the plain-language resolution in 1984 and 1985. "Short resolutions do little," said Owens, a lawyer. "The idea to make the language in these documents simpler is a good idea. Carrying it out is another ballgame."