How Del. Marshall’s “personhood” bill would render the Code of Virginia absurd.

I’ve spent a great deal of time, in the past year and a half, studying the state code. (As of next week, it’s my full-time job.) My self-assigned task has been to slice and dice the Code of Virginia into discrete units, in as many directions as possible, and fold it back on itself in as many configurations as possible. It’s basically confetti origami. What I’m saying is that I know it the Code of Virginia really, really well right now. Because of the nature of how I’m slicing up the code, and the glossary feature that is part of The State Decoded, what I know better than anything else is the definition of the word “person.”

The Code of Virginia has 118 separate definitions of the word “person.” Here are a few of them:

“Person” includes any individual, corporation, partnership, association, cooperative, limited liability company, trust, joint venture, government, political subdivision, or any other legal or commercial entity and any successor, representative, agent, agency, or instrumentality thereof.

“Person” means any natural person, corporation, association, firm, receiver, guardian, trustee, executor, administrator, fiduciary, representative or group of individuals or entities of any kind;

“Person” means any natural person, partnership, association, corporation or trust.

“Person” includes an associate of any person. For this purpose, “associate” shall mean (i) any other person who directly or indirectly controls, or is controlled by or under common control with, any such person or who is acting or intends to act jointly or in concert with any such person in connection with the acquisition of or exercise of beneficial ownership over shares; (ii) any corporation or organization of which any such person is an officer, director, manager or partner or as to which any such person performs a similar function; (iii) any other person having direct or indirect beneficial ownership of 10 percent or more of any class of equity securities of any such person; (iv) any trust or estate in which any such person has a beneficial interest or as to which any such person serves as trustee or in a similar fiduciary capacity; and (v) any relative or spouse of any such person, or any relative of such spouse, any one of whom has the same residence as any such person. For this purpose, “control” shall mean the possession, direct or indirect, of the power to direct or to cause the direction of the management or policies of a person, whether through the ownership of voting securities, by contract, arrangement or understanding, or otherwise.

“Person” means individual and entity.

“Person” means any association, aggregate of individuals, business, company, corporation, individual, joint-stock company, Lloyds type of organization, other organization, partnership, receiver, reciprocal or inter-insurance exchange, trustee or society.

As you can see, the variety is impressive. That’s for awfully good cause. Of the 30,826 laws in the Code of Virginia, 11,482 of them—37%—contain the word “person.” And there are 118 different things that “person” means in those 11,482 laws, because there are very specific things that they need to mean. Under Virginia law, a business cannot be guilty of murder, so under title 18.2 (Crimes and Offenses Generally), “person” does not apply to businesses, companies, corporations, joint-stock companies, etc. But under title 38.2 (Insurance), the word “person” doesn’t include people as you and I think of them, but applies only to associations, businesses, etc. (It’s the final definition in the list above.)

It is through this lens that I was alarmed to read Del. Bob Marshall’s HB 1: “Unborn children; construing the word ‘person’ under Virginia law to include.” The full text of the bill is described its in preamble as:

A bill to construe the word “person” under Virginia law, including but not limited to § 8.01-50 of the Code of Virginia, to include unborn children.

Wow. All 118 definitions of the word “person” would suddenly be amended to include “fetus.” This bill would serve as a wrecking ball against the Code of Virginia. Dozens and dozens of carefully constructed definitions would suddenly be rendered syntactically and legally ridiculous.

Section 38.2 would regulate associations, aggregates of individuals, businesses, companies, corporations and…er…fetuses. Fetuses would be able to employ people to bind insurance policies on their behalf. Fetuses would be regulated by the state corporation commission. A fetus could be appointed as a conservation police officer. It could sell real estate. It could be a mechanics lien agent. I could go on for a long, long time.

If Del. Marshall wants to redefine the word “person” within the state code, he’ll need to actually take the time to determine where, within the code, the word should be redefined, rather than lazily declaring that “person” always means “fetus.” HB1 would render absurd vast swaths of the Virginia code.

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

15 replies on “How Del. Marshall’s “personhood” bill would render the Code of Virginia absurd.”

  1. Since you concede that in the State Code of Virginia “the word ‘person’ doesn’t include people as you and I think of them”, perhaps your conclusion that “HB1 would render absurd vast swaths of the Virginia code” is actually very close to the mark and would be right on target if you changed “render” to “reveal as”.

    Wait a second, isn’t it liberals that rail against conservatives’ idea that corps are persons? With attendant 1st amendment rights to unlimited campaign contributions? And the fact that corps are punished (with fines) rather than officers with jail time when criminal acts are done?

    (For the record, regarding 1st amendment and corps, obviously corps are groups of individuals and thus should have freedom of speech–by restricting corps’ freedom of speech, you are also restricting individual persons’ freedom of speech. However, I do believe the gov has the right to regulate contributions to elected officials as the government has a clear mandate to prevent bribery. Also, re: corps and criminal behavior, once again, the “rights” and responsibilities of the individual should be the focus–commit criminal acts and jail time should be served. Financial restitution plus penalties should be applied to the corp as a whole as well.)

  2. Wait a second, isn’t it liberals that rail against conservatives’ idea that corps are persons? With attendant 1st amendment rights to unlimited campaign contributions? And the fact that corps are punished (with fines) rather than officers with jail time when criminal acts are done?

    The code’s use of the word “person” to refer to businesses here is a red herring. It could substitute the word “blatherskite” and it wouldn’t make any difference, because the word is just a container that serves to hold the 118 definitions of “person” throughout the code. It’s a convenient shorthand, nothing more.

  3. Ok, well in that case why do you object to this bill on practical grounds? Obviously this doesn’t limit places in the VA Code where more expansive definitions are given (i.e. where a person is not a person, just a placeholder word for entity). This bill gives the definition for the times that person is not defined. Unfortunately, the courts have chosen to not include all people under the definition of “person” first with slavery now with unborn people, so civil rights legislation must be pushed through to extend legal personhood to all people.

  4. Ok, well in that case why do you object to this bill on practical grounds?

    Because, as I’ve explained, it would include fetuses and zygotes in every single definition of “person,” even when that definition currently includes only business-like entities, not humans. It’s lazy legislation that would have tremendous unforeseen consequences that nobody wants.

    This bill gives the definition for the times that person is not defined.

    It’s never not defined. Ever. There is not a single point in the whole of the code where there is not one or more definitions that apply to it with a scope of section, chapter, title, or the whole of the code.

  5. “Person” is not defined in the U.S. Constitution’s 14th amendment: “nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

    More relevantly, “men” is not defined under Article I, Section 1 of the Virginia Constitution:

    That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

    Article I, Section 3 is also relevant to not killing people and has no definition of “people”.

    I firmly support HB1 as another necessary civil rights law to finally extend basic human rights to unborn people, despite bigoted people’s prejudices.

    Here an excellent little documentary that I suggest any pro-choice person needs to watch if they would like to maintain intellectual honesty: http://180movie.com/

  6. Hans, the issue at hand isn’t whether abortion is right or wrong or in-between — it’s whether such a blind, sweeping change to legislative language is conscionable.

  7. Hans, off the top of my head, a *closer* approximation would be to extend the definition of “natural person”, not “person”.

    However, it’s not my job to help Rep. Marshall fix broken legislation that I disagree with the spirit of.

  8. It almost makes you wonder if Marshall isn’t serious about this piece of legislation. I mean, I know he’s serious about his anti-abortion-in-all-forms politics, but can he be serious about this particular bill and its future, its chances of success, and its impact on state laws? Perhaps its a grandstanding move; he wants to be The Guy who brings “personhood” to all of Virginia’s zygotes. The fact that it’s sloppy, and it stands little chance of success (Louisiana, anyone?) doesn’t matter as much to him as the headlines, perhaps.

    Because otherwise, wow — how incredibly sloppy.

  9. Well it passed the HoD today. They seem to have overlooked the sloppiness factor. On to the “new and improved” Senate.

  10. Can pregnant women ride bikes considering…

    Helmet Use

    Several jurisdictions in Virginia require that every person fourteen years of age or younger shall wear a protective helmet whenever riding or being carried on a bicycle on any highway, sidewalk, or public bicycle path. The jurisdictions reporting such ordinances to VDOT are:

    City of Alexandria
    Amherst County
    Arlington County
    Clarke County
    City of Falls Church
    Fairfax County

  11. Strictly speaking, couldn’t any sexually active woman* of childbearing years** argue for qualification for HOV lanes, etc?

    I look forward to my new and improved parking spot any day now! Because I might have a zygote that’s about to implant, any second now. :-D

    * Cis, het, etc. (And I won’t say “not on birth control” because, as certain folks have been so eager to tell us, birth control doesn’t actually prevent pregnancy — it is “sometimes an abortifacient” — soooo…)
    ** Let’s define that as 14-55 for the sake of argument

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