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Bring out your dead laws!

I've said repeatedly that I have a great respect for the law. It's the glue that holds our society together, that protects us from our own and each others' basic instincts. But at its core, it's a tool -- no more, no less. And every now and then we need to give it a little maintenance.

One of the greatest strengths of our system is that it is utterly dependent on the consent of the governed. In theory, if enough people don't like a law, a policy, a party, or a leader, they can enact change without resorting to violence or going outside the system. It brings an almost Darwinian sensibility to society.

But as I said, that's in theory. In practice, it doesn't happen anywhere near enough. Dumb laws are enacted, discovered to be stupid, and then ignored. That's not how it's supposed to work. Hell, anyone who listens to talk radio or pokes around Snopes.com can give you a whole laundry list of dumb laws -- they're very popular themes.

And every ignored law is a defect in that tool that is our system of law, a defect that weakens the overall product.

A while ago, I wrote about one such stupid law -- Chicago's banning of foie gras on grounds of "cruelty." In the comments, one person by the moniker of "TAM" mentioned a story they'd heard about Theodore Roosevelt. According to TAM, Roosevelt (as New York City's district attorney) discovered that there was a law demanding that bars be closed by a certain hour -- a law that no one was bothering to obey. He knew it was a dumb law, but realized he had to establish a couple of principles: first, that he was honest and trustworthy; second, that dumb laws were bad laws. So he started rigorously enforcing it, explaining that he would enforce every law that was on the books, and would very much appreciate it if the lawmakers would get off their duffs and repeal it so he could focus on real problems. It worked; the law was repealed, and Roosevelt turned his attention to more important matters.

I'd like to see every legislative body set up a standing committee to review existing laws and see which ones are outdated, obsolete, irrelevant, or just plain stupid. And they would bring them to the full legislature on a fairly regular basis for repeal.

Others might call this the "Law Book Publisher Full Employment Act," but we as a society -- at the local, state, and especially federal level -- desperately need to take out our legal trash.


Comments (13)

Here in Nebraska, our legis... (Below threshold)
ptg:

Here in Nebraska, our legislature only one house. We are similarly plagued with outdated or 'bad idea in the first place' laws that languish on the books like unridden horses in a huge stable.

I proposed that we set aside one year out of three to elect and convene an un-legislature. In those years, no new laws could be passed. The un-legislature would be restricted to repealing said unused laws. After plenty of debate and input from the people, of course.

"I've said repeatedly that ... (Below threshold)
Herman:

"I've said repeatedly that I have a great respect for the law." -- Mr. Tea

Stop kidding around, Jay. If you truly did have great respect for the law, you would never have voted for Bush

Herman, just because you've... (Below threshold)
jpm100:

Herman, just because you've echoed your mythologies amongst yourselves so often for so long you accept them as fact, doesn't mean everyone else has to.

Why do I have this image of... (Below threshold)
Michael:

Why do I have this image of Herman as a ugly little troll who scrambles out from his dank cave to bellow his nonsense to the unlistening world and when frustrated at being ignored. scurries back into his dark little cave to curse all who have
made him(save himself of couse) the loser he is today.

I think it may have been Je... (Below threshold)
SCSIwuzzy:

I think it may have been Jesse Ventura who had advocated changing the rules of the house and senate, via Constitutional ammendment, to make it so that 6 months out of every year they could only repeal old laws or enact emergency measures (like approving disaster relief etc). Since politicians often create new laws just to show how busy they are when the next election comes around, the idea was to channel that "legislation for the sake of legislation" into something positive.

Maybe it's time to bring ba... (Below threshold)
DCE:

Maybe it's time to bring back a modified version of one of New Hampshire's old commission: the Sunset Commission. They would review laws on the books and make a list of laws that are no longer germane, in conflict with other laws, or generally unenforced/unenforceable and submit the list to the lawmakers or suitable legislative committee or subcommittee. Then legislation could be proposed to modify or do away with those laws, where applicable. They could be submitted individually or in omnibus fashion.

Or you could set up a syste... (Below threshold)

Or you could set up a system that the legislature cannot enact a new law without first getting rid of an old one.

In a former life, I was a m... (Below threshold)

In a former life, I was a member of a legislative body in a certain notoriously liberal east coast commonwealth. I discovered that one statute, the so-called "rules of the road" that governed the minutiae of driving, was encompassed in one incomprehensible 127-line paragraph. I rewrote the paragraph, breaking it up into sub-headings and editing it so that the average reader could actually understand what it said. It didn't change any legal standard or requirement. I filed the bill, and after reading it, the House counsel asked me what it did. I said that it makes the law comprehensible.

He laughed.

The bill went nowhere, and I was thereafter a cynic.

Rather than review laws, I ... (Below threshold)
yetanotherjohn:

Rather than review laws, I would prefer to see an automatic sunset provision. You could even tie the length before the law expires to the percentage vote (a law passed by one vote would be up for review long before a law past with a 100% vote). Thus all laws, good and bad, would have to be specifically renewed.

This would do two things. First, the dead wood laws you speak about would not build up. Second, it would keep the legislators occupied and thus less able to get into mischief. Third, rather than having to build up enough support to get action started to repeal a law, you just need to have enough support to get people to seriously look at a law before it gets renewed. Finally, the pace of the world change is getting faster so constantly renewing the laws will keep them more relevant.

Once Upon a Time...when I w... (Below threshold)
Scott:

Once Upon a Time...when I was a little boy, the California Legislature met every other years for a few months to pass a budget.

Amazingly, few laws were passed.

Today,we have a full time Leg that manages to pass "laws" against smoking, eating un-PC foods, etc.

The solution: make your state Leg a part time affair with four months to pass a budget. No time for nonsense.

Those of us here in CA can actually do this via initiative.

The rest of you..I don't know. Find a way.

Jay Tea, one of Heinlein's ... (Below threshold)
Gringo:

Jay Tea, one of Heinlein's more brilliant ideas on making government work is to have a third elected house in the U.S. congress with only one purpose: The repealing of laws.

In my blog I just wrote abo... (Below threshold)

In my blog I just wrote about NM making cock fighting illegal. It was not that the law was wacky, it was also the comments made by the governor, and state senator. It's embarrassing to even read the comments of state senator Phil Griego .Feel free to check out what they said at my blog.The post is titled Jesus Never Said Cock Fighting is A Sin

Oregon also meets only ever... (Below threshold)
epador:

Oregon also meets only every other year on part time. One major drawback is they are in such a hurry to pass legislation they often forget to figure out a way to pay for it. Then it takes 18 months before they can try to fix the problem. Take a look at our schools, and you can see this is a REAL problem.




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