Editorial | Rules, Schmules; The State Laws We Just Ignore

November 19, 2012 

If the S.C. legislature passes a law, it’s signed by the governor, and it becomes part of our state code, it means that the law must be followed. After all, if people could just ignore the ones they don’t like, we’d have anarchy, society would break down and all manner of chaos would ensue. Right?

Well, perhaps not.

As it turns out, the South Carolina code has a number of laws on the books that we just plain don’t pay attention to anymore.

Just recently, for instance, we passed two dates in October that went unremarked upon in the state, though they’re written into state law. Oct. 11 was General Pulaski’s Memorial Day, when state law decrees that “The Governor shall issue a proclamation calling upon officials of the government to display the flag of the United States on all governmental buildings” and residents should commemorate the death of Casimir Pulaski “in schools and churches or other suitable places.” If there was any such proclamation, we sure missed it, and we certainly didn’t see any commemorative events at schools or churches.

Just a couple of weeks later, the state passed Frances Willard Day, observed annually on the fourth Friday in October. On that day, according to state law, “in each public school it shall be the duty of such school to prepare and render a suitable program on the day to the end that the children of the State may be taught the evils of intemperance.”

Asked how Horry County Schools was preparing their program on “the evils of intemperance” this year, the response we got was laughter, which isn’t surprising. A glance at newspaper archives in the state show that the holiday has not been regularly observed since the ‘50s.

But it’s not just laws about obscure holidays that we ignore in this state.

How many retail stores are proudly displaying their state-issued sign about the consequences of armed robbery?

According to a 1993 state law, the Department of Revenue is tasked with providing to every holder of a state retail license an 8-inch-by-11-inch cardboard placard that warns shoppers in capital letters: “BY ACT OF THE SOUTH CAROLINA GENERAL ASSEMBLY ANY PERSON CONVICTED OF ARMED ROBBERY SHALL SERVE A SENTENCE OF NO LESS THAN SEVEN YEARS AT HARD LABOR WITHOUT PAROLE.”

All retailers are subsequently instructed to “prominently display” such placards. Seen any while shopping around town lately?

Then there’s the Family Respect Act, which was passed in 1999. It requires the governor’s office to publish and distribute a pamphlet promoting the importance of strong families. This pamphlet, state law says, “must be distributed” to a wide swath of residents: to newly married or newly divorced couples, to anyone getting a birth certificate, to anyone applying for welfare benefits, to all public school students in sex education, to every first-year college student and more.

Yet try to find a copy of this supposedly ubiquitous pamphlet and you’ll quickly strike out. Most state agencies nominally tasked with distributing it haven’t even heard of it.

State Sen. Chip Campsen, who sponsored the Family Respect legislation back in 1999, was surprised this past week to discover that it had fallen by the wayside. He hadn’t really kept track of the rule in recent years, he said, but “they can’t just ignore the law.”

To the contrary, it seems that’s exactly what’s happening.

Practically, what’s needed is an inventory of state law. The legislature performs no comprehensive reviews of the state code, instead just adding laws year by year and amending previous ones as the need arises. But at some regular interval, it seems prudent to go through and weed out these random bits of legislation and obscure directives that have become superfluous or archaic.

It’s a matter of integrity. These are all fairly minor issues, to be sure, and following or not following the laws likely won’t change the course of human events in any major way. But if our government can’t be bothered to follow the laws when it comes to the minor issues, it makes it that much harder to believe it’ll uphold the laws on the major issues.

Once we allow ourselves to start picking and choosing which laws really matter and which ones don’t, the slope starts getting slippery pretty fast. Legislators shouldn’t put either the state government or its citizens in that position, and the simplest way to avoid it is to only have laws on the books that we’re willing and ready to follow.

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