Why Do Preambles Matter?

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

By Martin Crim, Esq.

If a legislative bill has no preamble, readers are left guessing at what problem the drafter is trying to solve, if any. If the preamble identifies the problem to be solved, then readers can evaluate whether the proposed solution is effective, proportional, and practical.

Most Americans (and many others around the world) are familiar with the preamble to the U.S. Declaration of Independence:

In Congress, July 4, 1776: The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen United States of America, When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another …

This tells you who (thirteen states), what (declaration of independence), when (July 4, 1776), and most especially why (it has become necessary to dissolve the existing political bands). It sets up the self-evident truths and the list of complaints against George III that follow.

The preamble to the Declaration of Independence helps you understand the rest of the document and (along with a strong “therefore” paragraph at the end) turns it from a treatise on the right of self-determination and why George III was a bad king into a founding political document that transformed the world.

Because of its preamble, readers of the Declaration of Independence immediately understood what the Declaration was setting out to tell them: The reasons why the thirteen states were assuming a separate and equal station among the powers of the earth. Readers could then evaluate whether altering or abolishing the current form of government would be an effective solution to the problem. They could evaluate whether the “long train of abuses and usurpations” were so awful that no other step short of rebellion was strong enough to address them. They could debate whether declaring the thirteen states “Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown” was practical.

In the same way, a preamble to a legislative bill informs the reader as to the reasons for its existence. What is it trying to accomplish? Why is it needed? Then we can move on to practical questions: Is it likely to work? Is the proposed solution a good fit for the problem? And will it create new problems, perhaps worse than the original problem?

Dear reader, I, therefore, ask you to read the preamble when there is one, and to ask, if there isn’t one, “why not?” Then you can evaluate the proposed legislation on its merits, looking for the likely results – both intended and unintended – of the bill.

Martin Crim is a shareholder at Vanderpool, Frostick & Nishanian, and has been practicing law for over thirty years, primarily for cities, towns, and other local governments. If you have additional questions or concerns contact Martin Crim at mcrim@vfnlaw.com or call us at 703-369-4738.

This blog post is not intended to provide legal advice or substitute for the advice of legal counsel with respect to specific facts and situations. See disclaimer.