Our request was simple: All we wanted was a list of new Virginia laws that go into effect Jan. 1.

As you know, the Virginia Constitution states that all laws take effect July 1 "unless a subsequent date is specified," so we thought it would be a useful public service to let our readers know that as of Jan. 1 it would no longer be legal to swear at your cat, or whatever.

First we called the governor's office and put the question to a pleasant sounding lady. "It would be difficult to cite any (laws) right off like that," she said, putting us on hold so she could go ask someone who we should call. "Check Joe Holleman, the clerk of the House of Delegates."

We called there and asked for Mr. Holleman, who wasn't in. So we put the question to an assistant. "You don't know which laws you want to know about?" she asked. "All of them go into effect July 1 unless stated otherwise."

"Which ones are those?" we asked, thinking we were close to our quarry.

"The only way I could tell you is if you know the subject matter."

Ah, of course. How silly of us not to have memorized the nearly 700 pieces of legislation last year.

She suggested we call the attorney general's office.

The first person we were referred to was confused: "I must have picked up the wrong line. This question can't be for me." Then we were connected with Miss Harrison, the file clerk, who suggested we call the clerk of the House of Delegates. "They told us to call you," we explained.

Hmmm. "Michie publishing house in Charlottesville publishes the Acts of Assembly," she said, suggesting we send away for the compendium of laws, resolutions and study commissions enacted by the General Assembly. "Oh, wait, they don't publish it anymore. Listen, someone else just walked into the office and suggested you call Edward C. Tosh. He's the staff attorney for the code commission."

Mr. Tosh explained that all laws go into effect July 1 unless otherwise specified..."I don't think I can help," he concluded.

But, we exclaimed, how do commonwealth's attorneys and police departments find out that as of Jan. 1 they must prosecute people for swearing at their cats? Suppose it's no longer okay to turn right on red? What if the death penalty has been repealed and someone is scheduled to be executed Jan. 2?

In short, we were thinking, isn't this ridiculous that apparently not a single soul in the entire bureaucracy of Virginia knows what new laws go into effect Jan. 1? In Maryland, which for all its other problems seems to have a minimal level of competency in certain areas of the state government, we called the office of the Department of Legislative Reference and were told quite promptly.

"There is no fast way," Mr. Tosh said. "I'll send you our digest of the Acts of Assembly, where you will find a reference to the effective date..fs. But in the interest of accuracy I would urge you to double check anything you read there with the Acts of Assembly."

The Acts of Assembly is a two-volume, 1,500-page list, and Mr. Tosh suggested that the only way to accomplish our goal was to search through it for laws that go into effect Jan. 1.

The moral of this story is simple. Don'tswear at your cat until July 1 - "unless a subsequent date is specified," of course.