Tell me again: why are legal documents so hard to understand?

I’ve written about the difficulties people like me, i.e., laymen, can have in comprehending legal language, even in our own complaints.

I’ve also given a reason for this, which I got from a really brilliant lawyer.

Yesterday, in the New Yorker daily postings, I read a short critical piece, “Who Needs Edward Snowden?” by To my amusement, Mr. Schwartz went into the difficulty of comprehending the “technical vocabulary” used by government lawyers when they composed the surveillance legislation now hanging in Congressional midair.

Here are two extracts, reinforcing my own opinions about legal language. (As Mr. Schwartz says openly, the reason this language is so impenetrable is because the lawyers who wrote it do not want it to be understood. “Legal subversion.”):

The government enshrouds the details of its surveillance programs in a technical vocabulary (“reasonable articulable suspicion,” “seeds,” “queries,” “identifiers”) that renders them too dull and opaque for substantive discussion by civilians. As one Pentagon handbook put it, “one can be led astray by relying on the generic or commonly understood definition of a particular word.” There is a kind of legal subversion at work here. Broad and clearly worded laws, including the Fourth Amendment, are being undermined by a raft of quasi-legal documents, most of them too long, narrow, and boring to read—that is, if anyone were allowed to read them in full.

Some have argued that the current surveillance regime isn’t as bad as the activities of Henry Kissinger, who ordered wiretaps on his rivals during the Vietnam era, or of J. Edgar Hoover, who used the F.B.I. to authorize the covert infiltration of left-wing groups and terrorized Martin Luther King, Jr., with anonymous threats. Those abuses led to the lengthy investigations of the Church Committee, and the current system of judicial and congressional oversight. It’s true that the modern surveillance regime is less about the passions of individuals and more about the tendencies of institutions. But those tendencies—especially the belief that national security can trump the plain English of the law—will likely make it hard for this generation to achieve meaningful surveillance reform. This week’s debate over Section 215 should be the beginning of a much larger conversation.

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