In February 1989, seven year old Melissa Moreina and her mother were attacked by a pit bull in Miami-Dade County, Florida. In the ordinance that followed the attack, all pit bulls in Miami-Dade county were officially illegal. The ordinance was written by Robert Ginsberg, the Dade County attorney, for the County Board of Commissioners to discuss and vote on. The County Board of Commissioners is made up of 13 elected commissioners representing the 13 districts of the state. While the county attorney is usually the author of ordinances, it’s the County Board of Commissioners that decide whether or not the ordinance will be enacted.
All of Miami-Dade County’s legislation, including this pit bull ordinance, can be found on the county’s government website. The attack on young Melissa spurred a huge public outcry against pit bulls and the county commissioners began working out a solution to what people were calling “the dangerous dog epidemic.” The ordinance is part of a large number of activity systems; the state of Florida, the county of Miami-Dade, humane societies both in Miami and around the state, veterinary offices, animal rescues, police stations, fire departments, and all the citizens of Florida. The most relevant activity system that the ordinance is a part of, and the focus of this article, is what I like to call, the political arena. The political arena is the abstract place where candidates try to win voters by any means possible in order to get elected or reelected. Everything that a politician does is part of the political arena, from kissing babies to making speeches.
Most laws and ordinances are direct results of the public having an issue with something going on in the world. In 1989, a little girl was severely injured by a pit bull, so the public wanted something to be done about it. According to the ordinance, “this article is intended to utilize the authority and powers of Metropolitan Dade County in order to secure for the citizens of this County the protection of their health, safety, and welfare.” However, because the ordinance is part of the political arena, it is clear that there are other motives at work. Specifically the desire to get reelected and remain in power.
The official style runs rampant in the political arena, especially in legislation. In this ordinance, the official style is used for three main reasons; one, it helps maintain the commissioners positive appearance in the eyes of the public; two, it allows enough confusion in order to protect the county from getting sued in the event that a mistakes is made; three, it is the prescribed norm of behavior for legal documents to be written in the official style.
While the whole text is rife with the official style, the three key characteristics of the official style found in this text are passive voice, shapeless sentences, and verbose phrases. An example of passive voice is “Humane destruction of the pit bull dog by order of a court of competent jurisdiction.” This phrase hides both the subject and the action. The subject is neatly tucked away at the end of the sentence (the court), while the action is hidden behind the euphemistic phrase “humane destruction.” They couldn’t just say, “we will kill your pit bull” because they want to remain in a positive light in order to get reelected. An example of a shapeless sentence is “Technical deficiencies in the dog's conformance to the standards described in subsection (b) shall not be construed to indicate that the subject dog is not a "pit bull dog" under this article.” This sentence is particularly confusing, but once translated it becomes apparent how important it could be to the owner of a boxer. This sentence basically means that even if the dog in question doesn’t conform to their standard pit bull appearance, it can still be considered a pit bull. This means that the county could declare your boxer a pit bull and kill it, but you couldn’t sue them because even if it didn’t look like a pit bull that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a pit bull. In the long run, this would hurt the commissioners image and hurt their chances of getting reelected, but in the short run it might appear that they were just trying to do their best to protect the citizens of Miami-Dade County.
Another characteristic of the official style used in this legal document is verbose phrasing. Verbose phrasing can be found in many legal documents because the legal team wants to try to cover all their bases and to conform to the standard official style. An example of verbose phrasing in the pit bull ordinance is, “No pit bull dogs may be sold, purchased, obtained, brought into Miami-Dade County, or otherwise acquired by residents of Miami-Dade County anytime after the passage of ninety (90) days after the effective date of Ordinance Number 89-22.” And even though it would be simpler to say “It is illegal to bring or buy a pit bull in Miami-Dade County starting 90 days after this ordinance” it would not be considered appropriate in a legal document because it doesn’t cover all of the possible scenarios.
The official style in this text is designed to create a positive opinion of the commissioners, to conform to the standard legal code style, and cover up any possible mistakes that the county might make. However, the ordinance has a readability level of an 18.5 grade. This means it has low readability and the average Miami-Dade County citizen is not likely to understand the ordinance in its entirety. But on the surface, the ordinance’s purpose is not to be understood. It doesn’t matter if people fully understand the entire ordinance as long as they understand the gist of it: pit bulls are illegal, pay a fine, register your dogs, etc. Its not to be argued, its not to be torn apart and scrutinized, it’s a law. The commissioners put this out on the table and it doesn’t matter to them that you understand it fully as long as you mostly understand it and you follow it. Even focusing on the ulterior motives of the ordinance, getting reelected, it doesn’t matter if the citizens fully understand it. The citizens will get the basics, pit bulls are now illegal, and presumably this is what the public wanted and since the commissioners are doing what the people want, at least in this instance, its stands to reason that they will get reelected.
Its also entirely possible that I’m being pessimistic about the commissioners and their motives. It is possible that the commissioners are convinced that the public is in danger and that it is their job to protect the people from pit bulls. Its possible that my bias against this particular ordinance (not only do I love pit bulls, but I believe breed specific legislation does not reduce the number of dog bites), is affecting my view of the commissioners and the real reason behind the ordinance. And even if the commissioners are just doing the public’s will, isn’t that what they are supposed to do? It isn’t necessarily a bad thing that the commissioners want to get reelected because they were elected to serve the people and if they are serving the people in order to get reelected, well then at least they are doing what they are supposed to.
It is also important to note that even though it was the County Board of Commissioners who voted on the ordinance, it was Robert Ginsberg who wrote it. This critique only focused on the motives of the commissioners, but perhaps I should have focused on the motives of the author, after all, he is the one who employed the Official Style. It could be that Robert Ginsberg had a personal vendetta against pit bulls and wrote the ordinance in order to confuse the commissioners who were voting on it. The average reading level of most people is 7th grade, but what’s the average reading level of the County Board of Commissioners? It’s possible that they didn’t know what they were voting on, only that the people wanted it. But that is a subject for another critique.
By: Pearl C.