27 November 2012

Legislative Intent

The term "legislative intent" comes absurdly close to being an oxymoron. The Iowa Supreme Court in a recent case, State v. Adams, 810 N.W.2d 365 (Iowa 2012) gives us in one short paragraph the methods by which one may ascertain the intent of a statute. The process seems rather complicated. It would seem much easier to begin with the assumption that the statute is superfluous as it most likely is. The beginning premise of any analysis of a statute should commence with the idea that there are too many of them. The Iowa legislature, as with all legislatures, work under the assumption that their job is to pass as many laws as possible in the short time allotted them. A legislator, one who has been elected to serve in a legislature, by those who bother to vote and who have never read a statute nor would understand it if they did, is presumed to have a modicum of intelligence. He, or she as the case may be, fancies himself to have a mandate to address the complaints of his constituents. These mandates derive from newspaper headlines or the disapproving tone of television news anchors trickling down to the voter transforming themselves into moral outrage or general opprobrium. These outraged voters who think that the local television anchor has actually thought about anything call up their representative or senator and demand that something be done. The legislature in turn agrees that something must be done about whatever it is that is bothering his constituents and sets about proposing legislation to end the practice being complained of. The intent of the legislator is to remain in office and if it means passing ridiculous and superfluous legislation, so be it. Whatever intelligence a single legislator may possess, disappears into the abyss when joined with that of other legislators sitting in a group to discuss the upcoming proposals. Some will be in favor of a particular proposal and some will be against it; none will have read the proposed law but will vociferously support or disavow it regardless, depending, usually, on party affiliation. A perfect example of legislative superfluity are the driving while intoxicated laws. It has been determined that driving while intoxicated is a serious matter to be quashed where all possible. It makes no difference whatsoever that driving while intoxicated is a form of reckless driving already on the books and a statute so subjective in nature that it can form the basis of about any arrest law enforcement wants to make. The prohibitionists have reincarnated themselves into MADD. I can almost guarantee you that any given member of MADD is on the cell phone before leaving the driveway on the way to McDonald's drive through for her morning latte tailgating some elderly person on the interstate while yelling at her kids in the back seats of her minivan between quick glances in the mirror to check her makeup. So much for reckless driving. The courts are quick to find a law constitutional; they have a vested interest in not abusing legislative bodies. Legislatures give them money; pay for their retirement. It would not do at all to irritate those who fund you. Ergo, the laws pile up, one on another, until we are buried in them. There is no incentive to find a law unconstitutional which makes the interpretation of statutes easy indeed. So when the courts tell us what is required to interpret a law they are really telling us to grin and bear it.