January 2, 2019
By: Parker E. Lawton

Laws get passed for many reasons. Urgency, public desire and media attention sometimes compel a legislature to address a particular pressing issue. Other times, tireless proponents for a single cause finally see the fruits of their labor become enshrined by statute.

Often, laws get passed because the right people know the right lawmakers to persuade, cajole and entice with promises of fundraising dinners and super PAC dreams.

Many states – but not Illinois – allow voters to pass laws directly by referendum, bypassing the proverbial legislative gatekeepers. In those states, if you collect enough signatures for the petition and the voters approve the measure, Vox populi vox dei(“the voice of the people is the voice of God”).

That’s all well and good, but how does one get rid of laws that no longer serve their purpose, overstay their welcome like bad houseguests, or just seem plain silly? Laws are repealed the same way they are written. West Virginia still has a law on the books that disqualifies people from holding public office if they participate in a duel. President Andrew Jackson certainly did not have a quibble with dueling. Fortunately for him, he did not seek office in West Virginia, which incidentally did not break away from ol’ Virginia until after President Jackson’s death.

For 94 years Chicago had an “ugly ordinance” on the books. It was illegal in the Windy City to be in the public view if you were “diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object.” Fines ranged from $1 to $50 dollars depending on the number of prior offenses. Sensibly, the Chicago City Council saw fit to dispense with this law in 1974.

In Indiana it still is illegal to catch fish with your bare hands. Talk about a solution in search of a problem. In Rhode Island, you may be fined $5 for “profane swearing and cursing.” One for the family swear jar, five for the public coffers. Idaho has a law banning “barratry” which means a person cannot legally file more than three lawsuits with a “corrupt or malicious intent to vex and annoy.” Come to think of it, that one should probably stay on the books.

Many states ban vagrancy. Many anti-vagrancy laws stick around despite being found unconstitutional. As recently as 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Chicago ordinance that banned gang members from loitering, which meant “to remain in any one place with no apparent purpose,” was unconstitutionally vague and unenforceable. The Chicago City Council managed to modify the unconstitutional law the following year, but it stayed in the Code until the City Council proactively removed it.

It would be nice if our lawmakers did a little legislative housekeeping on their own, but as always it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease and it’s the vocal citizen who gets laws changed. So, find a silly or out-of-date law in your state, county or city and write the appropriate representative to change it. We may all be better off for your efforts.