Meg Matheson '79

 

Clarity Is All

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Meg Matheson '79 works as the revisor of statutes, a nonpartisan office in the Maine State Legislature.
The 2007 session was an ambitious one for the Maine Legislature. A statewide school district consolidation plan was enacted, and a sweeping tax reform bill fell just short of passage. The two-year budget bill was a record 800 pages. While things were busy on the floor of the House and Senate, they were even busier behind the scenes, where Meg Matheson ’79 keeps the paper flowing as the revisor of statutes, a nonpartisan office.

“Usually, we see the sun come up once near the end of the session,” she said of her round-the-clock working staff. “This time we saw the sun four or five times.”

Her first all-nighters were at Colby, where she majored in government. Matheson then enrolled in the University of Maine School of Law, where she set her sights on becoming a trial attorney. “I wanted to be Perry Mason,” she recalled during an interview in her corner office on the first floor of the State House.

After a short period of litigation in law school, she realized the courtroom was not a good fit for her and returned to her first interest—public service. In 1983 a position for an attorney was open in the revisor’s office; she applied and was hired. She progressed steadily to the top job, in 1993.

“Policy isn’t my job,” Matheson said. “We’re always very careful not to try to tell legislators what to do.” Her goal as chief statute writer, she said, is “to make the law as accessible, clear, and unambiguous as possible.” If Matheson does the job well, attorneys will have fewer opportunities to take advantage of ambiguities in the courts. She admits the language isn’t always perfect, but she does have a test: “I should be able to pick up a bill and not tell who wrote it.” An absence of style is what she’s aiming for.

This does not mean she finds the work dull. Over time just about everyone involved in the proposing and enacting of statutes finds his or her way to the revisor’s office, including legislators and their staffs, executive agencies, lobbyists—and the public. Ordinary citizens have an unusual degree of access to the legislative process.

As one might expect, open access means a lot of paper—even though the bill-writing process is now completely electronic. In the long session of the Maine Legislature, which lasts six months, nearly 2,000 bills are printed from nearly 3,000 requests, with another 900 requests in the short session from January to April of this year. And unlike in Congress, where only a tiny fraction of bills become law, in Maine 30 to 40 percent of bills ultimately are added to the statutes, making for plenty of out-of-session work.

While the sheer volume of legislation might seem daunting, Matheson said each bill piques particular interests and poses particular challenges. “I see them as word puzzles,” she said. “Can you tweak it in a way that expresses the proposal in the clearest way possible while also passing constitutional muster?”

The electronic era does make some aspects of bill-making easier. Other states sometimes have laws similar to what a Maine legislator is proposing. Back before e-mail, a request for another state’s law involved a week’s wait for the mail—for a text that might not be relevant.
Even when bills are clearly going nowhere after a public hearing, Matheson believes the process has value: “Sometimes having a public debate on an important topic is reason enough for a bill.”

Matheson’s favorite community pursuit is participating in Hallowell’s Gaslight Theater, where she’s played just about every possible role over the years. It may not provide Perry Mason confrontations, but she says it’s dramatic enough after all those long hours with the Legislature.

—Douglas Rooks ’76