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 It worked; the law was repealed, and Roosevelt turned his attention to more important matters.

I’d like to see every legislative body set up a standing committee to review existing laws and see which ones are outdated, obsolete, irrelevant, or just plain stupid.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.

CNN, Helen Thomas Get First Row in White House Briefing Room
Rosie and the Terrorist