A gold star for the revisor

“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you,” (Rudyard Kipling) then you must work in the Office of the Revisor of Statutes. That is the non-partisan legislative office where all bills are drafted in Maine.

Legislators submit between one and two thousand ideas of varying complexity and merit each year. Staff in the revisor’s office must figure out how to make even the sows’ ears into silk purses. They must not only draft bills, they must be sure that the provisions of those bills do not conflict with existing Maine statutes, and that they are both legal and constitutional.

The Joint Rules of the Legislature require that a bill request must be “accompanied by sufficient instructions, information and data required for its preparation.” Sometimes it takes a lot of digging to get to exactly what the legislator has in mind, because when it comes right down to it, the legislator does not always know exactly what he or she has in mind.

Would-be bill sponsors, especially those new to the Legislature, may have only a vague notion of existing law on the subject they hope to address. They know they want to reform state government or change tax policy or revise forest management practice, but when it comes to the details, they are not at all certain.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from bills that are, shall we say, light on detail, are bills that come in fully drafted, usually by lobbyists, who have found a legislative sponsor who will submit it for them. Those, too, must be carefully reviewed. Just because a bill is laid out in detail and presented in the correct statutory format doesn’t mean it gets by without scrutiny.

Then there are the bills that are part of a national effort, promoted by the parties, their surrogates or others with a national agenda. The National Rifle Association, the U.S. Humane Society, ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), National Right to Life, business interests, Death with Dignity advocates and the John Birch Society all offer model legislation for legislators to advance.

The revisor’s office may be the scapegoat when a legislator’s bill hits a rough patch in committee. Never mind that the sponsor has to read the bill and sign off on it before it is printed. It can be all too handy to claim that the bill as printed was not what the sponsor had intended.

Drafting errors are few and far between. That is remarkable considering the volume of work done every single session. Drafters are both diligent and patient in their efforts to understand what a legislator is trying to accomplish and write a bill accordingly. Sometimes, after considerable work has been put into a bill, the sponsor decides not to bring it forward.

A battle royal is being waged this session over the word “and” in a particular bill. It was left out and should have been put in, or put in and should have been left out. Truly, to the average reader, it is not easy to determine the difference in the bill’s meaning whether the “and” is in or out.

When there is ambiguity, interpreters turn to legislative intent. If that can be determined by committee records or other evidence of what a sponsor or the committee meant, it will have a decisive impact on the interpretation.

The revisor-in-chief, the actual revisor of statutes, is Suzanne Gresser. She is detail-oriented, has an encyclopedic knowledge of her field and is supernaturally calm. She is assisted by a staff that includes attorneys, paralegal assistants, an engrosser (who merges bill amendments with the bills they amend), a legislative technician and a legal proofreader. The office is responsible for drafting all bills, publishing those that pass and maintaining a database of statutes.

The Maine Legislative Drafting Manual is the 183-page drafter’s bible. The manual advises drafting staff to get off to a good start at the point of intake. “Inadequate intake can lead to frustration on the part of both drafter and sponsor and wasted time and effort on the part of everyone involved in the drafting process.”

Bills, resolves, concept drafts, resolutions, orders and amendments are all defined and illustrated in the manual. For lovers of the arcane, it doesn’t get any better than this. There are special capitalization rules as applied to governmental bodies, funds, tables and hyphenated words; special rules for punctuation, including periods, series, clauses and phrases, semicolons and commas (“use them thoughtfully and sparingly”); and the drafting of bond questions, citizens’ initiatives and “solemn occasions.”

Despite the best efforts of the revisor’s office, errors are sometimes identified after a bill is passed. Nonsubstantive errors, such as improper numbering of sections or misspellings are reviewed and periodically consolidated into an “errors and inconsistencies” bill. Substantive errors get additional consideration.

Few understand the demanding work of the revisor’s office, nor the high level of performance achieved. Overall, the revisor’s office gets a big gold star for service to the Legislature and to the state.

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Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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