Look it up, lawmakers

September 22, 2008
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From Indiana Lawyer reporter Michael Hoskins:

We look at Indiana’s appellate decisions every day. Frequently, a legal issue is raised about an ambiguous federal or state statute where words aren’t defined and the courts must address what the legislative intent could be for those words and statutes.

The issue came up in a Court of Appeals case, which we wrote a story about today, that examined the undefined meaning of the word “repair” in the state mechanic’s lien statute. Judges didn’t have a definition in the law to work with, so they consulted Webster’s – a common practice that often sees jurists consulting Black’s Law Dictionary and others. It happens often, with cases hinging on definitions of simple words such as “shall.” We’ve seen it in recent years on terms such as “proceeds” in the federal money-laundering statute or “legal incidents of marriage” as lawmakers wrestled over a same-sex marriage ban.

One has to wonder if lawmakers think to look at a dictionary when crafting legislation that might become law. We have lawyers at the Statehouse who, you’d think, would know better and be able to foresee potential legal battles over vague wording. But obviously if there are some who question the language and lack of definition, they aren’t able to convince their colleagues before the final passage. It seems like a dictionary could solve many of the legal battles we see regularly – maybe that would be a handy tool lawmakers could be given when taking their oaths of office.

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