There is a larger problem to face, though: laws that are almost impossible to understand because of how vague they are. In an excellent column, Gene Healy points out the following example:
The correct number of regulations is the smallest number that gets a good result, because hugely complicated regulations can make criminals out of people who are acting in good faith.
Michael Drebeen, a deputy solicitor general in the Obama administration, had a rough morning last Tuesday. He argued two Supreme Court cases back to back, defending a notoriously vague federal criminal statute -- and the justices worked him over vigorously.We see way too many examples of this sort of vague legislation going on and a lot of it ends up in the front of the Supreme Court. And it really hurts all of us. Read the whole thing.
The 1988 law at issue aims at public corruption and corporate misconduct, but sweeps far too broadly, criminalizing schemes to "deprive another of the intangible right of honest services."
If that language seems a little, well, intangible to you, you're not alone. Hurling hypotheticals, the justices strained to find a limiting principle that could prevent the law from covering an employee reading a racing form on the clock (Stephen Breyer) or calling in sick to go to a ballgame (Antonin Scalia). Of some 150 million workers in the United States, Breyer told Drebeen, "I think possibly 140 million of them would flunk your test."