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Why Can't Lawmakers Write?

Laws should be clear. Breaking the law can land you in jail, or mean a hefty fine, so people should be able to determine in advance whether something they're thinking of doing is legal or not. Laws can also create obligations, and these too should be clear so that the obligor and the obligee understand when the obligation has been met.

Actual laws fall well short of this commonsense goal. They're too hard to understand!

My example: the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), 15 USC § 1692. Earlier this month I commented on this article at a debt collection attorney's website discussing the FDCPA. He wrote:

If a debtor disputes the debt within the 30 day period, 15 USC § 1692g(b) provides for the debt to be verified. This simply means that the debt collector must send a written statement to the debtor with the name and address of the original creditor and the amount of the debt. This is all a verification is. The verification does not require the collector to produce original documents evidencing the debt.

I don't think this is correct. Mind you, he is an actual practicing debt collection lawyer, and I'm just an unfrozen caveman lawyer on teh internets. But he didn't respond to my comment so I'm getting out my megaphone. :)

Let's have a look at the actual text of 15USC1692g(b):

If the consumer notifies the debt collector in writing within the thirty-day period described in subsection (a) of this section that the debt, or any portion thereof, is disputed, or that the consumer requests the name and address of the original creditor, the debt collector shall cease collection of the debt, or any disputed portion thereof, until the debt collector obtains verification of the debt or a copy of a judgment, or the name and address of the original creditor, and a copy of such verification or judgment, or name and address of the original creditor, is mailed to the consumer by the debt collector.

If you read the paragraph closely you'll notice that it's a single gigantic run-on sentence. You'll also notice that it keeps weaving back and forth between two separate topics: disputing a debt, and obtaining the identity of the creditor. This is a recipe for confusion.

A further problem is that the FDCPA nowhere defines what "verification" means. Given the run-on sentence, I'm not at all surprised that someone might read it and believe that verification is the same as identifying the creditor. After all, this is the only nearby text that sets out any kind of definite requirements. So it's plausible that the lawyer is right. (And then there's the appeal to authority.)

But if he's right, I consider it a serious error caused by poor writing, one that should have been trivially avoided via an editor's pen.

I may not know the law, but I am literate, so let me add some color. I'll use red text to emphasize the "dispute" idea and purple text to emphasize the "creditor identity" idea:

If the consumer notifies the debt collector in writing within the thirty-day period described in subsection (a) of this section that the debt, or any portion thereof, is disputed, or that the consumer requests the name and address of the original creditor, the debt collector shall cease collection of the debt, or any disputed portion thereof, until the debt collector obtains verification of the debt or a copy of a judgment, or the name and address of the original creditor, and a copy of such verification or judgment, or name and address of the original creditor, is mailed to the consumer by the debt collector.

The lawyer's statement that verification "simply means that the debt collector must send a written statement to the debtor with the name and address of the original creditor and the amount of the debt" means, if true (and we're assuming it is), that the debt collector may respond to the consumer's request for an apple by sending an eggplant instead. That doesn't seem right.

Curiously, the nearby text of 15USC1692g(a)(4) and (5) seems to support my position that these are two independent obligations, because (4) discusses only disputes and (5) discusses only the creditor's identity. This makes the sloppy text in 15USC1692g(b) all the more tragic, because a less confusing organization of these ideas was already present.

Why do lawmakers create laws that don't contain definitions of important terms? Why do lawmakers express their intent so poorly that a layman thinks the law means means something significantly different than an expert does?

Is there an organization that rates legislators based on the understandability of the laws they've proposed or endorsed? That's a score I'd be interested to know around election time. After all, a legislator's actual job is tending to the law, not grandstanding on C-Span.


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