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Defending legalistic gobbledygook against bad press
(Article published in the February 5, 2001 issue of TODAY, Opinion Today Section)

The legal form book recommends that a Will and Testament begin with "IN THE NAME OF GOD, AMEN" obviously unconcerned with the possibility that the testator just might be an atheist.

Contracts start with "KNOW ALL MEN BY THESE PRESENTS" even if only the parties are bound by the agreement and the rest of humanity couldn’t care less. And the notary public states in his Acknowledgement that the parties are "known to me and to me known", even if he does not know them from Adam and, in those rare instances when he really does know them, saying it just once is legally enough.

Shouldn’t all these "legalistic gobbledygook" be, as suggested by Senator-Judge Rodolfo G. Biazon, be removed from intelligent communication?

Of course, society would definitely benefit from less legalistic gobbledygook (and less lawyers, for that matter); but eliminating it completely (just like following Shakespeare’s exhortation to kill all the lawyers) will not be good for the country.

Admittedly, gobbledygook has had bad press. The term’s inventor himself, Maury Maverick, a Congressman from Texas from 1935 to 1939 who gained fame as defender of civil liberties, used it to mean "that terrible, involved, polysyllabic language those government people use down in Washington".

My pocket Oxford Dictionary, with undisguised disdain for things originating from the colonies, considers the word colloquial, "probably imitative of a turkeycock". When modified by "legalistic" it is, for most, synonymous with legalese, meaning legal mumbo-jumbo.

But truth to tell, completely eliminating legalistic gobbledygook would deprive society of its many uses. One of its functions is to evoke a sense of ceremony that is intended to reinforce society’s belief that lawyers walk in that small circle with privileged access to the divine, or, at the very least the mystic.

Keeping this belief alive is necessary to seek and pay for the advice of counsel even if the advice is what the client already knows and even if in the lawyer’s bag contains ungodly tricks such as the Brothers Fortun Maneuver inflicted on Delia Rajas or the Estelito Mendoza Technique exposed by Senator-Judge John Osmena who confessed after Edsa II that the former solicitor general requested him to assist in blocking the opening of the second envelope.

The ceremony of swearing in a witness shows how legalistic gobbledegook works. Although the objective of ensuring that the witness states the truth is amply achieved by simply telling him or her to tell the truth, or else be made liable for perjury, both the witness and gallery must be placed in the proper mood and so, the Secretary of the Senate, during the Impeachment Trial, had to say, "You, (name of witness) do swear that the evidence you shall give in the case now pending between the Philippines and Joseph Ejercito Estrada, President of the Philippines, shall be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God." The loud incantation, the repetition, and the call on divine assistance ( which is artfully ambiguous, since it is not certain whether God is being asked to help the witness tell the truth, or whether God is being asked to help the witness if she does tell the truth, considering that it is Joseph Ejercito Estrada who is on trial) all remind us that we are in the presence of the ineffable.

The second function of legalistic gobbledegook is to further propagate the myth that in law, unlike in life, everything is Cartesian clear and distinct and that lawyers think clearly. All of society must be firm in this belief lest too much time be wasted by lawyers responding to the question "What the hell are you talking about?". Lawyers’ time is valuable as clients who are billed by the hour know very well.

A recent illustration is how, even before the start of the Impeachment Trial, lawyers have been debating the issue of whether the amount of evidence required to convict was "evidence beyond reasonable doubt", or "clear and convincing evidence", or "substantial evidence", or "mere preponderance of evidence". Yet, no one showed exactly when evidence crosses over from one category to another, nor even, when evidence leaves the lower end of the spectrum of being merely preponderant and arrives at the upper end of being beyond reasonable doubt. Events, like Esda II, fortunately have a way of making lawyerly debates moot and academic.

Finally, legalistic gobbledygook is the preferred vehicle for reminding mortals of the consequences of displeasing the gods. It delivers a most destructive payload but, because it comes from Olympus, it is without the vulgarity of Atong Ang’s description of the Erap Estrada as testified to by Chavit Singson. Instead, it is dressed in elegant embroidery and pretty frills worn by social climbers.

This can be seen in Senator-Judge Miriam Defensor-Santiago’s declamation on the occasion of Jazmin Banal’s testimony at the Impeachment Court on 04 January 2001:

"I notice that while Senator Roco, was in effect countering the point that I was raising and I was having the floor, after he made his point, a group of spectators in that part of the gallery went out of their way to stand out of their seats, deliberately violating the sign which are very clearly pasted on our walls saying, ‘Please remain seated,’ just to look at me at a provocative way.

"May I request senators from now on to raise their question with the witness and not try to initiate a debate or a colloquy with their own fellow senator. I would believe that the very barest essentials of protocol and etiquette dictates such behavior and conduct.

"And may I request the Chief Justice to discipline, at the very least admonish, and to reprimand this group that sees itself so high above the law that notwithstanding that the regulation is clearly presented in their direction, have deliberately went out, had deliberately gone out of their way to provoke a judge , into disturbing another senator-judge and indeed the entire impeachment proceedings"

All she wanted to say was: "This guy Roco got me there. But since I cannot get back at him, I will pick on those who cannot defend themselves against me".

What is important here is the sound and the fury sowint terror in laymen’s hearts. Never mind the obvious oppression of hapless victims in that senseless exhibition of demented trial rage.