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Word Wars

I respect language and the meaning of words. As a reader, this respect helps me to navigate through the nuances of human understanding and expression as they appear in print. As a lawyer, it helps me understand what the law is, how to comply with it or how to change it. I see it as a profound act of disrespect for both law and language when my fellow members of the bar, who should know better, forcefully assert meanings to words they cannot possibly believe themselves and do so in hopes of snookering the rest of us.

Politicians are very good at this. I remember in the 1980s when we were told ketchup was a vegetable. Lately we've been given a new definition of "torture" that renders the word meaningless and angers the world. But earlier this year we in the non-profit sector won a little skirmish in the language war when a New Hampshire county court judge restored a tax exemption to a charity simply by ruling that the terms "general public" and "member" have their obvious meanings.

She swept them away with pure common sense and the sensible rule of statutory construction that says a legislative purpose is not to be "thwarted by a strained, over-technical and unnecessary" interpretation of words. Even so, it took more than a year to get a court decision to make these simple points, and to thwart future like attempts. And the good judge had to use up 22 pages filled with straightforward legal prose to do it.

I wrote about this case last year, and I am pleased at the outcome for the sake of our profession and its most important tool--the words that give effect to the rule of law. The merit of the town's case is a different issue, and it may be taken up with an appeal. If it is, I hope the town's legal arguments will pass the laugh-out-loud test.


Bruce D. Collins

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