[By Kevin Underhill:] The Emergency Sasquatch Ordinance

July 7

Thanks to Professor Volokh and the other Conspirators for letting me guest-blog this week. I’m going to write about weird laws, a choice that has nothing at all to do with the fact that I recently wrote a book on that topic called The Emergency Sasquatch Ordinance. This is a respectable law blog (unlike mine, the legal-humor blog Lowering the Bar), and so I wanted to do something a little more substantive than just plug my book, even if it is currently available on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble for less than $17 or just half that for an e-book version.

To begin with, let me point out that all the laws I’m going to mention actually exist, or did exist at some point. There are an untold number of “dumb law” lists on the Internet or in book form, but with rare exceptions the people who compiled those lists didn’t actually confirm they were real. Sure, it’d be kind of funny if a California town had a law against riding a bicycle in a swimming pool, but as far as I can tell, it doesn’t. Believe me, there’s no need to make this stuff up.

For this week’s posts, I considered the examples I came up with when researching my book and tried to divide them into categories that might shed some light on why these laws exist. Those categories are:

  • Day 1: Pointless Declarations
  • Day 2: Old Laws Still on the Books
  • Day 3: Laws Addressing Some Human Oddity
  • Day 4: The Government Not Minding its Own Business
  • Day 5: Mysterious Laws

Today, pointless declarations.

I’m thinking of two general types: official state things, and nuclear-free zones.

Every U.S. state has a list of official state things. Sometimes these are created by nonbinding resolutions, but often they are codified just as binding laws are. For example, three states (Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas) have official state neckwear, in each case the bolo string tie. Texas adopted the bolo tie by resolution in 2007, while Arizona and New Mexico did so by statute. It seems slightly better to do this kind of thing by resolution, just so there’s no confusion as to whether these laws actually have any legal effect. They don’t.

That is, occasionally someone will express the belief that it is, for example, illegal to kill or otherwise bother an official state animal or fish or bird or lizard or tree or plant or microbe (Oregon) or macroinvertebrate (Delaware) or whatever. Some other law may make that illegal, but “official status” doesn’t itself offer any protection. Just to be entirely clear on this point, when it adopted the two-tailed swallowtail as its official state butterfly, Arizona specifically provided in that statute that the new status “shall not constitute grounds for protection of the butterfly or its habitat.” So, something of a mixed message there for the two-tailed swallowtail: yes, we adopt this as an official state symbol, but feel free to kill it.

This sort of confusion wouldn’t be a problem in California, given that its official state animal, the California grizzly bear, has been extinct since 1922. In fact, it had been extinct for over 30 years when the California legislature made it “official.” I don’t know exactly what kind of message that sends, if any.

Another example of a law meant to send a message is the “nuclear-free zone.” These are actually quite common, so I’m not picking on California by using the city of Chico as an example. Chico’s ordinance provides that “[n]o person shall produce, test, maintain or store within the city a nuclear weapon” or component thereof. (This is in the same title as ordinances prohibiting slingshots and graffiti.) That’s right: you could get in trouble for testing a nuclear weapon inside city limits. Actually, this particular ordinance doesn’t establish any penalties — it just authorizes the city attorney to seek an injunction to stop the nuclear activity in question — but it does note that unauthorized nuclear explosions may subject the exploder to other civil and criminal penalties, just in case that wasn’t clear.

The state of Colorado took a different approach. Instead of an outright ban, the state constitution provides that no nuclear device may be detonated in the state unless the voters have approved said detonation. It does seem to me that this is also intended mostly to send a message. If the detonation they’re worried about is a government test, I’m not sure a state measure could stop the federal government from testing if it could show it really needed to do so in Colorado. If it’s a detonation by somebody else, I’m not sure that person is going to wait for the next special election.

In any event, neither of these types of laws do any real harm, unless you count the fact that they take up time that legislators could be devoting to other projects. Of course, considering some of the other projects they have come up with, that might not be such a bad thing.

Tomorrow: old laws that are still on the books for no good reason at all.

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Eugene Volokh · July 7