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Ignorance of the law is no excuse. The problem is no one really knows what the law says.
Judges don’t. They require attorneys to submit Memoranda of Points and Authorities to back up their motions, and they still have clerks to conduct further research.
Government agents don’t. In April the IRS’s Acting Deputy Inspector General for Audit reported on problems found at IRS Taxpayer Assistance Centers. Auditors, posing as taxpayers, visited these centers and were given wrong answers to tax questions 17 percent of the time. Another seven percent of the answers were correct but incomplete.
Even legislators don’t. Last year California Representative Robert T. Matsui, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and one of those who had voted in favor of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (McCain-Feingold), told the New York Times that he was surprised later to discover some of the bill’s provisions. “I didn’t realize all that was in it,” he said.
He is not alone. Michael Moore’s movie Fahrenheit 9/11 includes a scene where Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI) admits, “We don’t read most of the bills. Do you really know what that would entail, if we were to read every bill that we passed?”
But private citizens and businesses are expected to know and abide by the law. They don’t enjoy the benefits of qualified immunity. Make the wrong decision and they face financial sanctions or imprisonment.
For a society to thrive under the rule of law, those laws must be clear, widely-known and equitably enforced. More importantly, they must be derived from, and promote, some basic purpose broadly agreed to by the members of that society.
As a business owner, I have to deal with similar issues in the microcosm. Our company policies affect hundreds of employees and reporters, and thousands of attorneys, rather than hundreds of millions of citizens. The underlying principles, however, are the same. In our case, the rules are there to provide faster, smoother, error-free service to our clients. But it is the service that matters, not the rules. So, we constantly monitor our service levels and add, amend or repeal policies as needed to improve that service.
The same needs to be done in the macrocosm. Adding tens of thousands of pages of new laws and regulations every year – laws which go unread, unfollowed and unenforced – will not lead to a better society. Rather, they need to be reexamined, streamlined and simplified so they can be followed and enforced. Only then can they achieve their purpose.