“I’m sorry, officer, I didn’t see the speed limit,” has never been a legitimate legal defense. We might say it when we get pulled over, hoping for leniency, but it’s never been a real excuse.
Ignorantia juris non excusat: Ignorance of the law is no excuse.
That’s a doctrine almost as old as laws themselves. Just because we didn’t know something was illegal does not excuse an illegal act. Pleading ignorance has never worked.
But a law you don’t know about isn’t the same as a law you can’t know about. Any law must be promulgated—made known and accessible—for it to be just. A secret law is no law—it is a grave miscarriage of justice.
The Roman Republic understood this well. Its leaders and citizens also understood that a maze of laws was almost impossible to understand, so they simplified their law into the Twelve Tables of Rome—a set of twelve tablets that contained the entirety of Roman law. They were posted in the Forum where everyone, from the wealthiest senator to the poorest plebian, could access and read them—if they were able to read. All laws passed (and even those ones repealed) were posted in the Forum.
Even the tyrannical Emperor Caligula followed the letter of this law. He posted his unjust laws in the Forum, but he put them high on a column so as to be impossible to read.
In contrast to the Twelve Tables of Rome, there are 27 state codes and 31 total categories of state law in Texas, each of which ranges from a few thousand words long to hundreds of thousands of words long. They are clearly posted online and at the state capitol, yes, but full of so much legalese so as to be difficult for the common Texan to understand—similar to being posted high on a column.
Like the Romans, the ancient Jewish people also understood the importance of clear law. The entirety of Jewish civil, religious, and social law is found in the Torah, or first five books of the Old Testament. Most of Jewish civil law is in Deuteronomy, but even taking the Torah in its entirety, with its stories, historical records, and other parts, it is a relatively short document—about 80,000 words. Hebew scholars long ago distilled the laws in the Torah to the 613 Mitzvot—613 commandments that all practicing Jews must follow. These commandments taken together are 5,000 to 6,000 words long, with some variance depending on the translation.
Conversely, the Texas property tax code—just one third of our tax code—is over 331,000 words long, quadruple the length of the entirety of the Torah, or about 56 times as long as the 613 Mitzvot.
Texas’ Alcoholic Beverage Code, which only regulates alcoholic beverages and the establishments that brew, distill, and/or serve them, is just shy of 160,000 words long. That’s about double the length of the Torah, nearly 27 times the length of the 613 Mitzvot.
And these are just Texas laws. This list doesn’t account for other states or the federal government.
We have a serious over-legislation problem. It is impossible for one person to know the law in its entirety—many legal experts only know their specific expertise, and there are dozens of different fields in law.
A system law this massive and complex is unknowable. An unknowable law is an unjust law. And, as many a Roman philosopher said, “lex iniusta non est lex”: An unjust law is no law at all.