Making the Case for Megan's Law: A Study in Legislative Rhetoric
53 Pages Posted: 27 Apr 2001
Floor speeches by legislators constitute an important body of legal rhetoric. This article studies the Megan's Law legislative floor debates in both the United States Congress and the New York state legislature. The article begins by setting out three practical purposes of legislative debate. First, it can influence voting decisions. Second, it educates and influences both the media and the voting public. Finally it provides a rich source of interpretive material for the judiciary.
The article then sets out a naturalistic description of these speeches, comparing the two jurisdictions. Legislators in both Washington, DC and Albany argued for the new laws primarily by painting a grim picture of the status quo. They offered horrific accounts of individual child victimization, questionable statistical claims about the extent of the molestation and abduction crisis, and dehumanizing descriptions of child sexual offenders. Particularly within the U.S. Congress, legislators spent little time touting bills' virtues or rebutting the many possible criticisms of these controversial provisions. New York legislators, perhaps because of their greater political diversity, offered more nuanced critiques of the bills.
The article then assesses legislators' rhetorical tropes and claims. Storytelling, for instance, presented both problems and benefits as a primary rhetorical tool for promoting the new social policy. And despite the apparent value of statistical proof, such empirical data was easily manipulated by savvy legislators. Many issues were underdeveloped during the Megan's Law debates. For example, while virtually all legislators spoke exclusively of white offenders and victims, legislators' rhetoric entirely excluded a discussion of the laws' likely disparate impact on African-Americans. Similarly, few legislators acknowledged that benefits of the law - if any were to be had - would flow almost entirely to suburban, and other low density, communities.
Finally, the article considers how the Megan's Law debates educated the public, affected legislative voting, or shaped judicial interpretation of the bills. Because it concludes that the Megan's Law legislative debates did not optimally serve these three practical aims, the article evaluates new approaches to enriching the content of legislative debate. It argues that legislatures could appoint a public legislative advocate - the equivalent of a public defender, within the legislative context - or adopt new codes of debate. In any case, legislators should look for ways to improve and enhance the rhetoric of legislative debate.
Keywords: Legislation, Rhetoric, Criminal Law, Megan's Law, Punishment, Storytelling, Racism, Sexual Offenders, Child Sexual Assault, Sexual Predators
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