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19th century horse speeding, fire transport still carry $5 fine

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(The Center Square) — Outdated and unenforced statutes clutter state law but languish on the books for decades, even though lawmakers agree they should be repealed.

State Rep. Tim Brennan, D-Doylestown, has sponsored the latest effort in House Bill 1543, which targets two pre-Civil War provisions that have long been forgotten.

Passed in 1836, it remains illegal to carry fire over a wooden bridge and to take horses or cattle over a wooden bridge faster than a walking pace. Anyone who does so must pay a $5 fine.

“Some laws no longer apply to our modern world yet remain on the books,” Brennan wrote in a legislative memo. “They clog up the system and hinder the efficient operation of our government. These laws are prime examples.”

Brennan wants to repeal the laws “in the interest of maintaining an efficient and responsive government.”

Though it’s doubtful that anyone has paid a fine for speedy cattle on a wooden bridge in more than a century, the state legislative system doesn’t make repealing the law easy.

“You have to go through the same process to repeal a piece of law as you do to make a piece of law, and it’s not very easy to make a piece of law,” Brennan said.

Periodically, a repeal bill will make its way through the General Assembly, but it’s not a result of an annual auditing process.

“I don’t think there’s any systematic effort to look at that,” Brennan said. “At times when we’re doing a review of a portion of a law, people will see them and pull them out.”

Some outdated laws that get revoked can be irrelevant, but others can have a major impact.

Federal law penalizes the misuse of the anti-littering slogan “give a hoot, don’t pollute.” Massachusetts, however, repealed some 19th-century laws that penalized abortion in 2018 over concerns that a change in federal law could affect state law. In 2021, Congress repealed a number of laws pertaining to federal Indian policy.

Some small-government advocates have argued for decades for a Committee of Repeal in “every legislative body” to avoid confusion and ensure legislatures, rather than courts of an executive bureaucracy, craft law. Others have argued that “sunset laws” could automatically clean up laws by requiring re-authorization or else a law would expire.

“America’s massive, convoluted, rigid legal structure makes it almost impossible for government to do this job sensibly and within budget,” the lawyer Philip K. Howard argued in The Atlantic.

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