Budget & Tax, Law & Principles

Raising means lowering? (or why people hate lawyers)

November 24, 2014

Trent England

Will the Oklahoma Supreme Court rule that “raising” means “lowering”? That is one possible outcome in a case currently before the Court. In fact, Justice Noma Gurich seems to believe exactly that according to this report.

The case seeks to throw out a tax cut passed by the legislature and signed by the governor earlier this year. If the Court rules against that cut, a number of other tax reforms adopted over the last decade could be invalidated as well. But only if the Court decides that two terms most people consider opposites actually mean, at least when it comes to taxes, the same thing.

The debate goes back to 1992, when Oklahoma voters changed the State Constitution by voting to approve State Question 640. The amendment applies to “all bills for raising revenue,” and was designed to make it harder to raise existing taxes or create new ones. During the heated debate leading up to the election, everyone on both sides understood that the measure was about tax increases.

How could anyone now claim SQ 640 restricts the legislature’s power to lower taxes? And why would anyone take such a claim seriously? Ah, yes … lawyers.

Like philosophers and poets, lawyers study and contemplate the meanings of words. That knowledge, of course, is a tool; it exists for a purpose, but can also be abused. The rightful purpose is clarity in legal documents and rules, from contracts and wills to legislation and court decisions.

Lawyers who manipulate words to avoid common sense abuse not merely power but learning as well. Should the Oklahoma Supreme Court decide “raising” means “lowering,” they will earn the ire of most Oklahomans. And rightly so.