Clay Spear was a legislator from Wever, Iowa, when I began my lobbing career in 1992. Rep. Spear, a former postmaster in southeastern Iowa, died while in office, on January 27, 1993. I recall coming into the Capitol on a Thursday morning and asking why there was a black cloth over his desk. I was hurt when I found out he died the night before. He served in the Iowa Legislature for over 18 years. He was a master at checking bills for improper and poor grammar. Oh, how we need him now.
My friend, Mark Lambert, told me that he had “channeled” Rep. Spear once when he explained to his city council that he had discussed an issue with other city attorneys via an email list. He said it was an email list of the “large city attorneys” in Iowa, then he clarified with, “that’s large-city city attorneys, not large city attorneys, though I could belong to either group!” It’s a perfect example of what Clay Spear would find in legislation and offer an amendment to fix it.
Rep. Spear could have an amendment to a bill that did nothing but add a comma. Maybe his amendment would insert a hyphen, nothing more. “Small town police officer” to “Small-town police officer.” It makes a difference, doesn’t it? The only legislators today who would know what someone was saying if they mentioned a “Clay Spear Amendment” would be Reps. Dennis Cohoon, Steve Hansen, Brent Seigrist, and Senators Tony Bisignano and Pam Jochum. Long after his death, amendments introduced to correct spelling, grammar or syntax were often called “Clay Spear amendments.”
Iowa used to be the education state. It’s on the 2007 Iowa quarter. “Foundation in Education.” Every other state in the nation was jealous of Iowa and looked up to us. Now, we’re barely in the top ten and sinking. I think I know why. We have a problem in Iowa with sentence structure.
I have pointed out quirks and failures in the Iowa Code several times. Flaws in the Laws: Part I – Employment Drug Testing; Flaws in the Laws: Part II – Mourning Dove Hunting; Flaws in the Laws – Part III: 2nd Degree Kidnapping; and the most recent blog – Flaws in the Laws: Part IV – Disturbing the Peace, which was posted almost a year ago. That most recent blog highlighted a problem with syntax in a bill. Guess what? The bill, requested by the Iowa County Attorneys Association, has been introduced in both chambers and is moving. It passed the Iowa House of Representatives 88-0 on Tuesday, February 2nd. There have been no revisions to this bill.
The ICAA conducts a lot of training for its members. However, absent but definitely needed is a refresher course on basic English grammar.
In the ICAA bill, as I have written about last March, is the amended language (underlined is new language):
“2. Makes loud and raucous noise in the vicinity of any residence or public building which intentionally or recklessly causes unreasonable distress to the occupants thereof.”
The language was added to address the absence of criminal intent. It didn’t change the intent of the sentence. The sentence remains “goofy.” From what you can remember of grade school classes in grammar (maybe even high school or college), read that sentence aloud a few times and see if you don’t find that the object causing “unreasonable distress” is the “residence or public building?” Remember, a sentence has a subject, a verb, an object, and a few modifiers. Modifiers are adjectives and adverbs. Now, without getting into teaching everyone all over again about proper grammar, can you diagram that sentence? You never learned to diagram? Oh, my! That is what needs to be taught in school once again.
The last time I saw diagramming was during an Advanced Legal Research and Writing course, and the instructor, Curt Sytsma, wrote on the white board, “Jesus wept!” He underlined the phrase and drew a line between Jesus and wept. That is what diagramming is about – separate the parts of a sentence to the subject, verb(s), object, modifiers, etc.
How will this poorly-worded bill play out if the measure is enacted? Will the courts say, ‘well, we know what it means, so we’ll rule that the person caused “unreasonable distress to the occupants?”’ They shouldn’t. A smart lawyer, or maybe even a mediocre one if you can find one, is going to get someone off on a “technicality.”
In Auen v. Alcoholic Beverages Div., 679 NW 2d 586 (Iowa 2004) Justice Wiggins wrote for a unanimous Court that the “goal of statutory construction is to determine legislative intent. State v. McCoy, 618 N.W.2d 324, 325 (Iowa 2000). We determine legislative intent from the words chosen by the legislature, not what it should or might have said. Painters & Allied Trades Local Union v. City of Des Moines, 451 N.W.2d 825, 826 (Iowa 1990). Auen at 590.
I sent my concerns to several lawmakers; I discussed my concerns with the ICAA’s lobbyist; I drew up a short brief and shared it with legislative staff in both chambers, and nothing has changed.
These are the leaders that are arguing over our children’s education. And yet, it seems as though none of them have the ability to recognize a poorly-worded sentence. Is this why Iowa is no longer the education envy of the nation? Hah! I wonder how many elected officials recognized that I began a sentence with a conjunction.
I’m no Clay Spear, but I’m going to bet that he is having grave thoughts about this language problem resting in his tomb.