Bureaucratic language is everywhere. I don’t object to it, for I rely on bureaucrats to help us understand our laws and regulations. The secret is writing these explanations in language that average readers can understand. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen. For instance, if you’d like to get a hunting or fishing license out here in Montana where I live, it’s not easy. I don’t hunt or fish, but I’m amazed at the language hoops that hunters and fishermen (fishers?) have to jump through to get that license.
The first step is to sign what the state calls a “conservation form.” It’s a small slip of paper about the size of a gas-station receipt that you can pick up at some hardware stores. Even though its title might suggest a type of environmental protection, this document really wants to find out whether or not you have a legal residence in this state. You have to sign your name on it before you can move on to the next step of getting the license. Here’s what that conservation form says:
I hereby declare that I have been a LEGAL resident of the state of Montana, as defined by MCA 87-2-102 for at least 180 consecutive days. All statements on this form are true and correct. I understand that if I subscribe to or make any false statement on this form, I am subject to criminal prosecution.
Since you probably don’t want to be prosecuted as a criminal, the first question you might ask is, “How do I know what a LEGAL resident means?” OK, the form you just signed refers you to the Montana statute so we can assume you’re supposed to either already know what this statute says (unlikely) or you’re supposed to go look it up (even more unlikely). But you’re in the hardware store, you want to get a license, and it isn’t convenient to go look up the statute. So you sign it anyway and don’t even think about how can you possibly be in any jeopardy of criminal prosecution.
Another problem is that you might think you’re a “legal resident” when you’re actually not. The fact that you have a home in North Dakota in addition to the one you have in Montana puts you smack dab in the midst of legal jeopardy. Statute MCA 87-2-102 contains a number of behavioral residence requirements that you didn’t know about, such as the need to have your vehicle licensed in Montana and have a voting record there and in no other state.
If by chance you happen to have been reading Black’s Law Dictionary lately, you may know that it takes a very dim view of the word, “residence,” especially in statutes that intend to mean “domicile.” Under the heading, “residence,” Black’s says:
Personal presence at some place of abode with no present intention of definite and early removal, with purpose to remain for an undetermined period, not infrequently, but not necessarily combined with design to stay permanently … residence is something more than mere physical presence and something less than domicile … the terms ‘resident’ and ‘residence’ have no precise legal meaning … a person may have only one legal domicile at one time, but he may have more than one residence.
Brian Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage (1995) cites law cases that say “domicile” and “residence” are often confused as synonyms. He says this alleged synonymy is dead wrong:
More specifically, “domicile” means the place with which a person has a settled connection for certain legal purposes, either because his home is there, or because that place is assigned to him by the law.
And for “residence,” Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary offers this definition:
residence: the act of dwelling in a place for some time; living or regularly staying at or in some place for the discharge of a duty or the enjoyment of a benefit; the place where one actually lives as distinguished from one’s domicile or place of temporary sojourn
So it’s beginning to look like the term on that little conservation form ought to be “domicile,” not “residence.” Are you in jeopardy of criminal prosecution because this form uses the term “legal resident” instead of “domicile?” If you find time to look up the Montana statute, you’ll find that it uses “residence,” not “domicile,” so this simple little form may not be alone in misunderstanding the legal term. Even statutes can be badly written.
Again reflecting the state statute, that little form asks you to claim that you “have been a legal resident of the state of Montana for at least 180 consecutive days.” You now can wonder when those 180 consecutive days are supposed to have started and ended. You also can wonder if it’s OK to have taken short business trips and vacations during that 180-day period, violating the requirement of “consecutive.” So what does “consecutive” mean? For example, suppose you’ve lived in Montana for at least 180 consecutive days (assuming this is somehow defined) during several different years, including this one, and you’ve also lived in your other home in North Dakota for at least 180 consecutive days during some of those years. Does this form refer to this year only? If so, why didn’t it say so?
And what about the fact that by signing this form you’ve agreed that “all statements on this form are true and correct”? You have to wonder how you’re supposed to know whether all the statements made by the unknown bureaucrat who wrote this form are true and correct. Again you’d have to look up the statute to discover whether the conservation form reflects it accurately. You wonder if this is your responsibility. If you’re supposed to take it on faith that the statements made by the writer of this form are accurate and true, we’ve already seen that it includes a questionable legal definition of “residence” and a pretty vague statement about “180 consecutive days.”
If you manage to advance past this conservation form, the next step is to fill out the actual hunting and fishing license application, which has its own confusing hoops to jump through. Curiously, if you want to register to vote in Montana, you only have to live in the state for 30 days. Talk about priorities!
I guess this is a pretty good reason not to try to get a hunting or fishing license in Montana.
Roger Shuy is a professor emeritus of linguistics at Georgetown University, where he created and led its doctoral program in sociolinguistics.