During my first year of law school I was having a conversation with one of my professors, a young African-American activist who taught criminal and property law. "Criminal law, I understand," I said. "It affects people every day, it's often unfair and unjust, and like most other types of law centers around those who have money. But property? Isn't that reserved for flunkie-lawyers who wear pocket protectors?"
"In any given society, without exception," she explained, "there are two types of law: criminal and property. There is always a code that covers moral conduct: what's permissible, and what is not permissible. There is also some type of law that covers who owns what, who can use what, and how ownership is transferred. Even animals have a criminal and a property code. They affect everyone and should be understood by everyone."
As I continued through law school I saw that the law is an imperfect tool. Much of it is unjust. The problem, I decided, is that people have been repeatedly told they are too stupid to understand the law and should not try. For legal reasons, even this project has a precursor on it that says: "...seek competent legal guidance..." This message is hammered repeatedly by the legal profession, government, and schools.
It's true that legal statutes meant to empower ordinary people are hidden in tombs of books and sometimes written in arcane language. Case law -- that is, the law judges write via cases -- could be, at-best, termed confusing. Many "how-to" books either oversimplify the law or are too confusing to be useful.
The answer, I've found (I think ... hope), is to "marry" computer technologies with law to allow people to more easily wade through the mess on their own. As people educate themselves on the law they'll demand genuine reform. Hopefully my readers will also gain some useful information on the way, like how to assert your rights in certain areas of the law.
Thousands of years ago in Messopatania King Hammurabi laid down one of our first modern legal codes. His idea was that causation should affect a similar legal response, a new idea in his time. Before he came along it was generally death for certain crimes and nothing for others. After him, we get the idea that drunk-drivers should have their license revoked; liars should be forced to apologize, and murderers should be locked up. Among his inventions are the biblical eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth (Hammurabi didn't actually put it like that, but it's close enough).
About 1,500 years later in ancient Israel the locals had forgotten how to read the law, relying on others to read it for them. Widespread legal illiteracy (which wasn't half as bad as what we're experiencing in the U.S.) became common. Finally, one of these readers held up the law above his head when called upon to read. The message was simple: read it yourself. The people did and the law changed dramatically.
The law has changed since then. It's become more complex, more difficult to enforce, and more alienated from the lives of ordinary people (when was the last time you sat down to read a book of statutes or a legal decision?).
Despite that, civilization has become more law-abiding than ever. How many times a day do we sign contracts (i.e.: checks or credit-card slips), adhere to criminal codes (like stopping at red lights), honor property agreements (by living in houses and expecting others not to intrude). The list goes on. But the level of legal literacy has remained abysmal. How many people know what a plaintiff is? A complaint? A Writ? Yet -- if you're here to use the landlord-tenant material -- you'll see these terms affect your everyday lives.
Therefore, go ahead -- read the law. But remember, it's not a novel. Treat it special. Read it slowly, repeat sections if they don't make sense - look up the legal lingo (until the on-line glossary is available). Be patient: you're learning valuable skills wading through this stuff.
If you don't like that it's so difficult to read then tell the author -- your state representative or state senator -- and demand they rewrite it. You're paying for it: you should like the final product. If you don't agree with the philosophy write a letter or lobby to change it (a few phone calls can make a world of difference).
Finally, if you're here for less philosophical reasons -- that is, you simply want to find out if your landlord has to repay the security deposit -- use the attorney general's handbook. But wade through the law anyway if you get a chance: you'll be surprised what you find. Finally, write down those sections, including the section number and subsection (if there is one) and tell first the landlord and then the judge. This is THE law of Minnesota uncensored: nothing else anyone tells you -- your landlord, your friend, your great-aunt from Peoria -- matters.
It's time we as a nation awake. We must not let bullies intimidate us. Whether it's a dishonest landlord or a difficult-to-understand legal system, it's time we took control of our lives back into our own hands.
If you find this material useful send me a note and tell me your story and how knowledge of the law helped. If you recover some money, please send some so I can continue legal publishing (I'm thinking of a bankruptcy or divorce area next, or maybe landlord-tenant for a different state: any preferences?).
Finally, I'm obligated to make a pitch for money. West Publishing "owns" the law: they've copyrighted it in all it's printed and electronic form. (To see an interesting article about how this happened, click here). Therefore, I've had to retype everything from scratch: no scanning was allowed. This took forever and adding the HTML anchors and making it look readable took even longer. I've received no money from the Attorney-General's office for republishing their handbook: the entire project is done for free. What I'm trying to say is I have a lot of time in this project. If you agree with my philosophy or like my work, please send a donation so I can expand and continue it.
For anyone who's made it this far: thanks! If you'd like to contact me either call at (612) 644-0029, write to: Michael Olenick, Olen Publishing, 1604 Dayton Ave., St. Paul, MN (U.S.A). 55104. Or, drop an e-mail to:firstname.lastname@example.org