I can’t believe he didn’t say that!

January 20, 2016: — Yesterday the Supreme Court of the United States denied certiorari in the matter of Sissel v. US Department of Health & Human Services, which means the Court will not hear arguments in the latest challenge to the Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. When this decision came to my attention I thought, naturally, of Otto von Bismarck.

Recently, I confess, I have been thinking too much about Otto von Bismarck, the statesman who unified Germany, invented the welfare state, and sported a walrus mustache of impressive proportions. This year we mark the 150th anniversary of the first attempt on Bismarck’s life, when a would-be assassin fired five shots into him at point-blank range. Bismarck grabbed the fellow, turned him over to some nearby soldiers, then strolled on home. No wonder they called him the Iron Chancellor. But that Chuck Norris-eque feat is not why I have been thinking about him.

My mind has been turning to Bismarck for two reasons. The first, although it has a constitutional aspect, is more suited to my political blog, VOX VICKERY, so I will not go into it here. The other reason has to do with legislative drafting, a subject on which I teach a course every other semester.

A little while ago, as I set about updating my syllabus, I thought of the old saying, “Laws are like sausages: nobody should see them being made.” If you have heard that expression, you may also have heard that its progenitor was Bismarck. That was my understanding, anyway.

But it was not Bismarck who gave the world the laws-are-like-sausages aphorism, at least not according to Wikipedia, which cites Fred R. Schapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations.  He attributes the statement to one John Godfrey Saxe, a lawyer, poet, and failed candidate for the governorship of Vermont.

What is Mr. Schapiro’s basis for claiming that we owe the phrase not to Otto von Bismarck but, instead, to John Godfrey Saxe?  In his 2008 New York Times Magazine article titled “Quote… Misquote” Mr. Schapiro points to the March 29, 1869, edition of the Daily Cleveland Herald and the March 27, 1869 edition of the University of Michigan’s University Chronicle, both of which credited the phrase to Saxe, who also happened to boast a walrus mustache, albeit not one to rival Bismarck’s (see below, and judge for yourself).

bismarck and saxe

Only Saxe did not say “laws are likes sausages: nobody should see them being made.”  Rather, he said “laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made,” which is similar, but not the same.

The difference between what Bismarck is supposed to have said and what Saxe is supposed to have said is subtle but real.  To say that the more you know about lawmaking the less you respect the law is different from saying that the lawmaking process is something you should not see. The statements are not contradictory, just distinct. Each conveys a meaning separate from the other.

So here is the lesson for legislative drafters. Regardless of whether laws are, in fact, like sausages, they certainly have something in common with quotations: Disputes can arise over their authorship and meaning.

Authorship matters in legislative drafting because not just anybody can enact statutes.  I can’t, for example, and nor can you. The authority to legislate vests in the legislature, although the executive has a role at the end of the process, i.e. signing/vetoing.  Our federal and state constitutions make clear that the executive must not legislate, and nor may the judges. This is what we mean by the separation of powers.

Sometimes it matters which branch of the legislature authors a bill. And that was the issue in Sissel v. US Department of Health & Human Services, the case the Supreme Court declined to decide yesterday. The petitioner, Sissel, alleged that the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional because it originated in the Senate. Why would that matter? Because all money bills must originate in the House. And how do we know Obamacare was a money bill? Because in NFIB v. Sebelius the Supreme Court ruled that the charge the law imposes on people who do not buy health insurance is a tax.

If a bill creates or varies a tax it is a money bill. QED. Devoted readers may remember that I wrote an amicus brief on this subject last year when the Supreme Judicial Court was resolving a disagreement between the two chambers of the Massachusetts Legislature over the state budget. For a quick refresher, click here.

So authorship is important. Like authorship, meaning is a factor that matters a great deal in legislative drafting. Take, for example, another Obamacare case, King v. Burwell, about whether subsidies are only available to people who bought their health insurance through state exchanges as opposed to federally-established exchanges. The Supreme Court had to decide whether the statutory phrase “established by the state” simply meant what it says or meant “established by the state or the federal government.” The latter, held the Court, even though the relevant part of the statute, section 36B, clearly says “established by the state” not “established by the state or the federal government.”

The Court held that “in context” (two little words that, when placed side-by-side in a judicial opinion, can stop an attorney’s heart) the phrase “exchanges established by the state” could mean all exchanges, not merely those established by the state but also those established by the federal government. Meaning matters, in statutes and quotations alike. As the Court demonstrated in Burwell, a statute’s meaning can undergo a significant shift between Point A when the legislature creates it, Point B when it enters the maw of the judiciary, and post-digestion Point C when it emerges.

Which brings us back to Otto von Bismarck who famously did not say “laws are like sausages: nobody should see them being made.” Seeing laws being made may not be all that appetizing, but seeing them being digested can make you positively green around the gills. You can quote me on that.

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