Friday, February 1, 2013

Funny, Scary, and Ridiculous Statute Names

In this era of statutes tagged with catchy names like the DREAM Act, the CAN-SPAM Act, and of course the USA PATRIOT Act, we have become increasingly desensitized to politicized, over-wrought, and even ridiculous acronomial statute names.  To take some lesser-known examples, Congress has in recent years passed or considered bills with names such as the COATS, FREEDOM, FEAR, FRIENDSHIP, SWEETEST, and CHIMP acts. So what's up with this, anyway?

First off, if not for the many technicalities that would prevent this from happening, some of these statutes would likely violate FTC deceptive practice regulations.  Brian Christopher Jones and Randal M. Shaheen recently published an article in the Seton Hall Legislative Journal showing how this is the case.   

However, it wasn't always like this.  As Chris Sagers of Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, and Gallagher's own Mary Whisner have pointed out in recent research, the act of naming a statute at all is a relatively recent phenomenon in our nation's history.  (Also see the great, comprehensive "How Statutes Are Named" article just published in the Law Library Journal by Renata E.B. Strause, Allyson R. Bennett, Caitlin B. Tully, M. Douglass Bellis, and Eugene R. Fidell.)  Before the New Deal legislation of the 1930s, and not even frequently during that period, laws passed by Congress rarely included the now-ubiquitous clause stating "this statue may be cited as the _____ Act."  It used to be that statutes were known by the names that journalists, librarians, historians or others retroactively attached to them for easy reference.  These were usually descriptive names, or names derived from the laws' sponsors, or both, like the Sherman Antitrust Act.  In fact, the practice of the legislature naming statutes upon their passage may have been first prompted by a 1914 plea from law librarians, who needed an easier way to index and find the nation's federal laws.

Now, just about every statute, it seems, not only has a name, but a catchy, memorable, cute, or funny one at that. In the past twenty years, there have been over fifty statutes with descriptive acronym names.  In the first two centuries of the country's existence, by contrast, there were a grand total of four, at most (if you include the 1970 RICO Act, which may or may not have been a reference to a character in a 1930s gangster movie). 

Moreover, no other country has adopted this strange practice of giving adorable acronomial names to their laws.  The U.S., it seems, likes its statutes sugar-coated and easily remembered.  I would expect the trend to only continue as America's love affair with the acronym rages on, especially with the increasing prevalence of communication by text and social media -- it's only a matter of time until the "LOL OMG" statute.       


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