Politics and Governance

Ockham in the Legislature: Keep Laws Simple and Clear

Although many Texans may not have noticed yet, life in the Lone Star State changed dramatically this month. When the clock struck midnight on September 1, more than 600 new state laws went into effect, changing everything from farmers’ market standards to switchblade restrictions. [1]

These laws added new rules, removed old rules, and amended existing rules regarding what Texas, through its legislative process, defines as acceptable behavior. Yet, unfortunately, only a select few revisited the Texas code in order to clarify disputed points and provide broad, guiding principles explaining the spirit of the law.

Laws are most effective when both citizens and law enforcement understand what is legal and illegal. Legislators should seek to pass clear, easily understood laws. Doing so will facilitate both compliance and enforcement.

There are several inherent forces that push legal codes toward greater complexity. Laws must be worded a specific way and written in a specific format in order to do exactly what lawmakers want them to do. Legislators must compromise with interest groups and fellow legislators in order to pass their bills, and such compromises often require adding in more provisions and exemptions from the law.

Also, lawmaking is an ongoing process. Legislators pass laws, then return later to reevaluate and amend the laws to address any problems or unintended consequences that might have arisen during implementation. Those fixes often cause other unintended consequences, which leads to another round of tweaks, and so on.

The result is that legal codes become increasingly complex and inscrutable, which can lead to confusion over the basic meaning of the code. [2] Still, there are ways the government can mitigate this complexity, such as: explaining statutes online in everyday language, reviewing the legal code to eliminate confusion, prefacing each section of the legal code with the general principles governing that section, and resisting the urge to micromanage human behavior.

Lawmakers could direct governments to review what information they offer to citizens online and how they offer it. Agencies could review relevant law that governs their mission and powers and explain these on their websites in simple terms – indeed, some agencies have already taken steps toward this.

Governments could make their codes interactive. Annotations could help explain legal concepts. Since many parts of statute refer to other sections, making these references hyperlinks to the relevant sections could cut down on confusion and make the code more accessible to residents. Officials might also consider producing a broad overview of the law that provides the general principles the legislature has set forth and touches on the most important points in everyday language, rather than legalese.

Lawmakers should also understand that they cannot account for every accident or misdeed, and every law they pass will have unintended consequences. Rather than trying to micromanage human behavior, they should set forth broad, understandable principles that lay out what is acceptable or unacceptable and establish a framework for citizen compliance and government enforcement. Laws can still deal with specifics, but only cautiously and as needed.

Last session, several bills took tentative steps in this direction. Rep. Lon Burnam, for instance, recently carried a bill (HB 3593) that clarified existing law regarding the process by which the state and counties removed deceased individuals from voter registration lists. [3] Last year, some counties (most notably, Harris County) mistook numerous living voters for dead individuals and removed them from voter rolls. When this came to light, Harris County contended that part of the issue was that the Secretary of State’s office had a different interpretation of the law.

Rep. Burnam’s bill – now law – established the broad principles by which the state and counties can purge deceased voters and provided a clear framework describing the state and counties’ separate responsibilities.

Reviewing and clarifying legal codes may not be legislators’ top priority. It may not have the emotional appeal of some more contentious issues, and it may seem like a relatively bland legislative achievement. It can also be devilishly difficult to put into practice. Nevertheless, legislators should still keep the principles of clarity and simplicity in mind when approaching lawmaking. Doing so could help keep government efficient and transparent.



[1] Lawmakers passed these laws months ago, during the regular legislative session, but set their effective date at September 1, in keeping with a constitutional provision preventing laws from going into force earlier than 90 days after session unless the legislature approved it by an overwhelming majority.

[2] Complicated codes can have other real effects, beyond mere confusion. If lawmakers attempt to micromanage workers and employers, for instance, they could end up burdening business with extraneous paperwork and high compliance costs. Obviously, some regulation is necessary – but lawmakers should carefully weigh a law’s costs against its benefits.

[3] As a matter of full disclosure, I worked on this bill as a member of Rep. Burnam’s staff.

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