Do words have meaning? A closer look at Subsection (g)

July 12, 2017

By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

Subsection (g) of Section 36-25-13 of the Code of Alabama 1975, is often overlooked because, on its face, this portion of the Alabama Ethics Code seems pretty straightforward (if you are not a lawyer looking to help your client find an exception to the two-year revolving door provision of the code).

Former Acting Finance Director, Bill Newton, intends to open a consulting business. So, he asked the Alabama Ethics Commission to grant him permission to use his years of government service as leverage, to provide professional services/advice, request information from public officials/employees, to aid his potential clients, under what they hope may be an exception to the two-year ban on such activities.

Setting aside personalities or who is seeking clarification or an exception under this section of code, let’s acknowledge that words have meaning. Sentences are constructed to further shed light on the words and in this light are considered to say what they mean and mean what they say. Lawyers make millions arguing what the meaning of “is” is, but editors and reporters read to find what the plain language means.

Subsection (g) of Section 36-25-13 of the Code is part of the greater language on prohibitions that block public officials or public employees from representing clients, including his or her employer before a board, agency, commission, department, or legislative body, from two years after departure from government service.

In its tone, Subsection (g), formerly Subsection (f), seems to apply to adversarial proceedings that are of a judicial nature, to which the State is a party.; but the strict language of the section points to a broader prohibition.

Subsection (g) reads in part, “No former public official or public employee of the State may, within two years after termination of office or employment, act as attorney for any person other than himself or herself or the State, or aid, counsel, advise, consult or assist in representing any other person, in connection with any judicial proceeding or other matter.…”

In this sentence, the word judicial is being used as an adjective to modify the word proceeding. If the code stops there or isn’t followed by, or other matter, then it would be talking about one thing.

Even if it read, “judicial proceeding ‘AND’ other matter” it would only be referring to judicial proceedings; but it doesn’t.

The code reads, “judicial proceeding or other matter.” The word other in this sentence is an adjective which modifies matter. Therefore, a strict reading concludes that it is referring to groups other than lawyers. This may not be the intent of the draft, but that’s what it says. And to some, it may look like it applies to only lawyers in a judicial proceeding, but that’s not the way it was written.

So in context, Subsection (g) means, no former public official or public employee of the State may, within two years after termination of office or employment aid, counsel, advise, consult or assist clients before the State period.

Now, a high-paid attorney is going to argue, among other things, that I don’t have a law degree. They will also argue intent, which they will, over the next few months, to find yet another loophole to allow an insider to use their years in government to make lots of money.

Republicans who claim to stand by a strict interpretation of the law will now be faced with allowing an exception or enact legislation clarifying Subsection (g) of Section 36-25-13.

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