Judge tries to simplify law words Plain English fan would nullify null, embrace the void

October 20, 1992|By The Kansas City Star

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- As if Joseph E. Stevens Jr. doesn't face enough problems becoming chief judge of the federal court in Kansas City -- such as building a new federal courthouse -- he's trying to bring "plain English" to the law.

In plain English, "absolutely null and void and of no effect" would be replaced by "void."

"A Kansas corporation" would do just fine for "a corporation organized and existing under the laws of Kansas."

Some say it can't be done. Not by lawyers, who have raised construction of pagelong sentences of gobbledygook to an art form.

But Mr. Stevens is going to try. He persuaded the Missouri Bar to create a committee on plain English, and he now has about 20 members helping him.

Mr. Stevens will become chief judge of the Western District of Missouri Nov. 1.

In that role, as administrative head of the court, the judge will be responsible for overseeing the construction of a new U.S. Courthouse. That's no easy task because his colleagues on the court, as well as many others who will work there, have different ideas of just how it should be designed and built.

But Mr. Stevens, who also is a church volunteer teaching functionally illiterate adults to read, says he would make time for plain English.

Mr. Stevens says he got interested in the plain English movement more than two years ago after hearing newsman Edwin Newman talk about the use and abuse of the English language.

The plain English movement advocates eliminating some words. "Hereby" is a favorite target.

Some others on the plain English hit list are aforementioned, hereinabove, therewith, to wit and whensoever.

Also targeted are "redundant couplets." Examples: any and all; all, each and every; final and conclusive; full force and effect; unless and until.

"We intend to seek legislation requiring the use of plain English in insurance policies and other documents that ordinary people have to deal with every day," Mr. Stevens says.

To be effective, the effort to weed out compound constructions, word-wasting idioms and redundant phrases is going to have to start in the law schools, the judge says. A representative from every law school in Missouri serves on the committee.

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