Ethics Lessons From a Missing “at”

An embarrassing story from Fairfax,Virginia yields several ethical truths.

A Virginia man facing a fine or worse for not stopping properly behind an unloading school bus got off scot free after it was discovered that he hadn’t broken any law—at least the way the law is printed in the statute books.

The law reads:

“A person is guilty of reckless driving who fails to stop, when approaching from any direction, any school bus which is stopped on any highway, private road or school driveway for the purpose of taking on or discharging children.”

Got that? You break the law by not stopping a school bus that is already stopped. The little word “at”—as in “fails to stop AT…any school bus stopped on any highway” —seems to have been inadvertently omitted when the law was amended back in 1970, rendering it useless and ridiculous. Once this was brought to the court’s attention, there was no choice but to drop all charges against the driver, despite the fact that he endangered children by ignoring the bus’s stop sign.

There are three things to take away from this fiasco.

1. For 40 years, neither prosecutors, nor judges, nor defense attorneys nor legislators bothered to read and repair a flawed statute that was vital to child safety, and which was used to fine, and in some cases remove the driving privileges of, Virginia citizens. This is incompetence on a grand scale. Presumably, Virginians should never assume that even the most basic responsibilities of Virginia officials are being performed with diligence and care.

2. Because there won’t be a functioning law on this matter for a while, does this mean that nobody should heed stopped school buses? Of course not. This is responsible and necessary conduct regardless of how the law reads. Think about this the next time you hear someone (probably a politician or a corporate executive) claim that what he or she did was ethical because “there wasn’t any law against it.” For 40 years, there hasn’t been a law making it illegal for motorists to blow by unloading school buses either. Did that make it an ethical thing to do?

3. This was one short statute that became worthless because nobody read it carefully when it was voted on in the Virginia legislature. Nearly 3000 pages of far more complex and far-reaching provisions affecting every American and having impact on professions, businesses, daily life, health, families and the economy was voted into law—yes, the healthcare reform bill—without any legislator taking the time to read it.  Indeed, the law was designed this way, to make debate more difficult.  Can we begin to see now how arrogant, incompetent, negligent, lazy, reckless and dangerous this was? Can we even begin to calculate how many missing “ats”, “nots”, “shalls” and other little words were misplaced or omitted in those 3000 pages, setting the stage for mass confusion and havoc? Will American citizens ever demand that their elected officials do their jobs? If we don’t, we are the unethical ones.

4. This applies to Republicans seeking to reverse, repeal or de-fund the healthcare bill as well. If they don’t understand what the law actually says, they have no business trying to change it.

5. The Virginia law, even with the missing word inserted, is miserably and confusingly written, demonstrating the low-level of communication and comprehension skills of those whom we entrust to address, for example, America’s education problems. It is time for voters to demand proof of basic knowledge and sufficient analytical, writing and reading skills as prerequisites to being considered as a candidate for state or national office. Garbage in, garbage out.

Nonetheless, lawyers being equal to the task of making the outrageous seem reasonable and vice versa, Orrin Kerr over at the Volokh Conspiracy (and the majority of his commenters, it seems) argues that the judge should have construed the law as if the “at” were there anyway, because that’s the only way the law makes sense. This dodge, of course, is just more incentive for legislators to just sort of write what they kind of mean to say, leaving it to others to explain away their sloth and make solid their intellectual mush.  Many of the Volokhies would have the judge fired, when I maintain he is making an appropriate example of the Legislature. I see nothing wrong with telling lawmakers to write a clear law, or they have no law. They should be able to get the hang of English with a little practice.

4 thoughts on “Ethics Lessons From a Missing “at”

  1. In this age of auto-spellchecking and texting abbreviations and jargon, the skill/art of clarity is debased to the point of incomprehensibility.

    Proposed: All elected officials should be required to hire the services of a professional proofreader. The qualifications for Proofreader — other than the usual — would be objectivity, political neutrality, and communication skills sufficient to translate meaning at a level their employer can comprehend.

    Uh, . . . oh, never mind.

  2. Jack, would you accept a blind repeal of the health care bill, if the intent was to replace it with a clearer and more understandable bill, and such a bill had been written and was waiting in the wings? I cannot see amending the health care bill as passed because it is, to put it mildly, opaque. You have properly chastised Nancy Pelosi (or tried to chastise her, but since she sports more brass than the Kansas City fire engine….) for her pass-the-bill-to-see-what’s-in-it rhetoric. But what hasn’t been commented on quite so much (by anyone, so far as I can see), is how long it’s taking to find out just what’s in the bill. It’s months after passing the bill and (surprise!) we’re still getting new revelations about what’s in it.
    Personally, I’ve no use for a health care law in most any form but, if have one we must, is it asking too much that that the law at least be comprehensible to us, the people who are going to actually have to live with it? Given that only a handful of lawyers can actually make sense of what’s in there (and even they don’t always agree) a good, and ethical, case can be made for simply repealing the whole mess and, if we still feel the need for a health care law, that can be dealt with at a time-to-be-announced.

    • In a word, yes. Except that this would be re-inventing the wheel–surely there are SOME good things in the bill, somewhere (my sister says she wrote a few dozen pages of it); the current bill is a good place to start. Somebody has to read the damn thing.

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