Archaic Legalese

While most states have joined the 21st century as far as their bodies of law are concerned, there are still a few that need to get with the times.  In the vast majority of cases you can find a relatively recent version of a state’s laws published online.  Some are slower to update that resource than others but it’s almost always there.  Almost.

When it comes time to go through the laws of the states for whatever reason there are two that I personally absolutely dread: Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. 

What usually is a slow and tedious process, albeit an enlightening and educational one, becomes an absolute nightmare in the cases of two of the America’s oldest states.  Nobody on our team wants to tackle them, and for good reasons.  Massachusetts, and to a lesser extent Pennsylvania, largely uses the same structure and language in its laws that has been used since the colonial days.  Most of the laws are massive walls of text without any of the (1)(a)(i)(A) type of ordering used in nearly every other state code, or some hybrid of long unnumbered paragraphs with an ordered bullet system added in halfway through.

You would expect to find a lot of legalese embedded in the laws but Massachusetts takes it a step further and still uses language lifted straight out of the 18th century and earlier, spelling out words like “antemeridian” and “postmeridian” instead of using the more common “a.m.” and “p.m.”.  Do you know what a “secular day” is?  How about a “victualler”?  The first sentence of the Massachusetts law authorizing sales of alcoholic beverages for consumption on the premises(Part I Title XX Chapter 138 Section 12), such as at a bar, has more words in it than this entire post to this point, some of which you might need to consult a dictionary to understand.

Even this is better than Pennsylvania’s law authorizing the same(47 PS 4-492), which the Keystone state hasn’t even gotten around to codifying or posting online.  If you go to the Pennsylvania General Assembly website and try to access Title 47 (Liquor) of the Consolidated Statutes you get a note which basically says they haven’t passed a law requiring that Title to be implemented, so if you want to find the liquor laws you have to go dig up the original law that was passed.  You can find unofficial versions assembled by third parties if you know what to Google, but no official version actually exists.

This is a recurring issue in Pennsylvania.  Much of the state’s drug laws are found only by digging up the original law that was passed decades ago.  The only crime in Title 18 (Crimes and Offenses) directly criminalizing marijuana related activity is a drug trafficking statute(18-7508) that kicks in when “the amount of marijuana involved is at least two pounds”.  In order to find out what happens if you have less than two pounds one must dig up “The Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act of 1972”, which is referenced in many places within the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes but not included within them.

These sorts of issues create barriers to citizens living in the 21st century being able to access, know and understand the law.  It should not be as difficult as it is in a number of such cases for the average person to be able to see the law of the land for themselves rather than needing to rely on what others claim it says.  If you cannot see it for yourself you have no way to know if another’s take is accurate, which can be a dangerous proposition considering the force of law is backed up with exactly that: force.