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Keep It Simple: Legal System Thrives on its Complexity

Van O'Steen

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Arizona Revised Statutes consume more than six feet of shelf space. These books are the written laws passed by the Arizona Legislature. They also contain brief summaries of appeals court decisions interpreting some of the statutes. The Arizona statutes represent only a tiny fraction of the laws intended to govern human affairs.

More than 150,000 new laws are passed each year by Congress, state legislatures and local councils. In addition, countless administrative edicts are issued. To make matters worse, an untold number of state and federal appeals court decisions interpreting, applying and overruling the law are published annually.

The sheer volume of these laws, to say nothing of the complicated and confusing language in which many of them are written, has produced a legal system that is incomprehensible to most. If you spent every waking moment reading the law, you could not keep track of all the laws that might apply to you.

I recently read an obscure chapter in Arizona Revised Statutes captioned "State Administration of Weights and Measures." The laws in this chapter occupy about 27 pages of type, much of it fine print and difficult to understand. The law is intended to ensure that those who sell products by weight, volume or count do not cheat buyers.

This is the way I would re-write the entire 27 pages:

  1. All products sold shall be accurately weighed, measured or counted, and if they are labeled, their labels shall be accurate as to weight, measure or count.
  2. All devices used to weigh, measure or count products shall be accurately calibrated in accordance with standards established by the national bureau of standards.
  3. The Arizona Department of Weights and Measures shall ensure compliance with this law. Those who violate the law shall be punished appropriately.

I am not naive enough to believe that such a clear, brief and direct law could work in our existing legal system. Lawyers would raise challenges to it based on several centuries of court-made legal precedent. This process would result in a series of legislative additions to the law and volumes of court decisions pertaining to it. Eventually, we would return to 27 pages of statutes and numerous agency rules.

I believe there is substantial value to keeping things simple and direct. If we cannot keep them that way, at least we should start that way. Unless fundamental fairness becomes the only standard against which disputes are judged, I am afraid we are doomed to bigger law libraries, an expanded judiciary and more lawyers.

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