The uses and audiences of preambles in legislation

This article documents the increased use of long and substantive preambles in federal legislation from 1985 to 2000. Only nine statutes had such preambles in the first five years of this study, while in the last five years, twentynine statutes did. Preambles were most frequently included in legislation arising from intergovernmental agreements, symbolic legislation, ideologically charged amendments of criminal and environmental laws, and legislation enacted in reply to court decisions. Plato suggested that preambles should persuade citizens to obey important laws by speaking to their hearts and minds through both reason and poetry. The author contends that this ideal is not met by contemporary preambles. Though preambles are often included in important legislation, they rarely speak directly to citizens as they do not use popular language or a persuasive voice. Various political uses of preambles are examined and the author concludes that contemporary preambles often seek to establish legitimacy by providing a narrative of the origins and purposes of the legislation. The professional uses of preambles are also examined, particularly the role of preambles in statutory and constitutional interpretation and in dialogues between the legislature and courts. The author concludes that while preambles have frequently oversold legislation and have been excluded from working versions of the law, they should still be included in important laws to better outline the purposes and processes which led to the enactment of the legislation and better communicate with the multiple audiences of modern legislation.
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