ATLANTA -- There’s a children’s song called “I’m Just a Bill,” well known from the Schoolhouse Rock shorts that aired during Saturday cartoons, but it’s a bit inaccurate about how bills actually become law.
In the cartoon ditty, a scroll of paper croons that a lawmaker “sat down and wrote me out.” It’s broadly true in Georgia that elected officials write laws, but to be more precise, laws are actually drafted by a team of state attorneys who toil in a crazy warren of offices easily overlooked in the opulence of the Capitol building.
A little door tucked under a grand staircase is where legislators go when they need help writing a bill. Every year, about 2,000 pieces of legislation, amendments and substitutes pass through some attorney’s hands in the Office of Legislative Council. And their busiest season is now, when the Legislature is beginning about three months of meetings.
Soon lawmakers will come calling for the amendments, compromises and brand new texts they’ll need for the so-called “sausage making” that is a legislator’s job.
“We’ve had people bring in an idea on a napkin,” said Deputy Legislative Counsel Shawn Marie Story, a graduate of Mercer University’s Walter F. George School of Law.
She sits in a windowless office at a dead end of the maze-like attorneys’ suite, wedged like an afterthought between the third and fourth floors of the state Capitol. Atop a crooked back stairway and a hall too narrow for two people to pass each other, there’s her surprisingly cozy office, stuffed from the floor up with her legal reference books and bright choices from her personal contemporary art collection.
A half-story downstairs, the department boss, Legislative Counsel Sewell Brumby, said it’s not very often that legislators write their own laws. He’s seen enough lawmakers come and go to know. He joined the office in 1978 and contributed to the state Constitution rewrite in 1982. His desk is near the very front of the maze, in a low corner office lined with aged brown-and-tan volumes of Georgia code and family pictures. In early winter, the sun is already illuminating dust motes on the wooden blinds and will make the office hot in summer.
Certain lawmakers, especially attorneys, might come into his office with a tight draft, Brumby said. Others might arrive with simply a concept that needs to be wrapped in sound, precise language. Still others may have a text prepared by an expert somewhere else -- perhaps a lobbyist or a state agency staff member.
But “we’ll draft anything for any member,” Story said. “We’re not political.”
Inspired by constituents
Before she joined, Story recalled, “I questioned whether one person could have an effect.” Now going into her sixth year as counsel, she’s “refreshed” by what she found.
“I think people underestimate the power of an e-mail,” Story said. She’s often been asked to draft bills “based on a constituent letter.”
Legislators can be inspired by letters that, for example, explain a problem or solution that he or she might not know much about. It’s easy enough to forward that letter up to counsel and ask for a draft bill.
There, Story, Brumby and the other staff lawyers, nine or 10 of them lately, draw on their experience, code and precedent for part of the drafting. If there’s something technical, they can call on state agencies or lobbyists for advice.
In one day, Story might research anything from telecoms to health care to metal theft. And that’s part of why she left private practice for this: “I like things that keep me interested.”
Passing the wrong law
It takes a remarkable amount of attention to detail to do the job well. Sometimes the Legislature votes for a text that says one thing when they thought it meant another.
Seven years ago during the state flag battle, the Senate accidentally approved the wrong size banner on the second-to-last day of the session. That might sound like no big deal, but it meant the bill had to go back to the House. The previous House vote had been so hard fought and time was so short, the bill could have easily died due to the delay.
Brumby remembered a law about flu shots several years ago that seemed to wrongly prevent some medical professionals from giving the shots. The Legislature had to revisit the law to clarify it the next year.
If a lawmaker can get confused, it’s no surprise that an average reader would find some Capitol legalese impenetrable. One of the last House bills released by Brumby’s office before the weekend begins this way: “A BILL to be entitled an Act to provide a short title; to amend Part 3 of Article 8 of Chapter 1 of Title 10 of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated, relating to antifreeze, so as to provide that engine coolant or antifreeze sold in this state containing more than 10 percent ethylene glycol shall include denatonium benzoate as an aversive agent to render it unpalatable; to provide for applicability; to provide for a limitation on liability; to repeal conflicting laws; and for other purposes.”
Translation: Let’s add something bitter to antifreeze so people and animals won’t drink it.
It’s up to legislative counsel to take that idea and turn it into an airtight proposal: find the right chapter in the law book, define “antifreeze,” define whose responsibility it is to add the yucky-tasting stuff and, yes, to specify that a manufacturer can get in trouble for not adding it.
“Bitter additive” isn’t clear enough for the law -- think how Judge Judy would pick that apart. Better to say specifically “denatonium benzoate.”
Brumby respects the short, clear sentences now considered a mark of good style, but he added that law and precedent and court interpretations have been piling up for hundreds of years.
“You don’t casually go around rewriting something like that,” he said, but added, “We do our best to make bills readable and understandable to a person of reasonable intelligence.”
In the next few months, Story and Brumby can look forward to the longest days of the year, maybe 12 hours on the clock, maybe leaving after midnight.
“Sometimes I feel like we’re in the emergency room,” she said. Sure enough, when session deadlines start popping up, it can be a matter of doing a draft in 10 minutes at 11 p.m. or the bill might not be heard at all.
After more than 30 years, Brumby is clearly a member of a certain tribe that inhabits the Capitol. To get in, all it takes is some gray hairs and a few decades of dedication to working the strangely addictive place, whether as a doorkeeper, reporter, lobbyist, clerk, cleaning crew or even an attorney.
He could have quoted any one of the old saws about the oddness of the Legislature: that it’s like three truckloads of bean pickers without a foreman, or that the first month you wonder what you’re doing there, then the next 10 years you wonder what everyone else is doing there.
“I guess I just like it. ... It sort of gets in your system,” he said. “I don’t want to be grandiose, but you get sort of an intimate view of history.”
Story called it “quite an honor” to have been hired for the office.
“They’re the elected representatives,” she said. “We’re here to help them serve the constituents.”