Jerry Kopel

You just came home from vacation, opened the fridge and suddenly realized the electricity had been off in your house for 36 hours. What's in the fridge is no longer food, just goop and mold and smell. So of course, you empty everything out, clean the fridge, and fill it with new food....unless you're in the legislature.

Imagine the statute books, the laws you must obey, as being in a fridge. Legislators just push the old laws (the goop, mold and smell) to the back and put in new laws, which is why our statute books are so thick.

People running for the legislature often promise "elect me, and I'll repeal more laws than I'll add." Once in the House or Senate, almost all forget about repeals. But a few do try to clean out the fridge.

In 2000, Sen. Dave Owen (R-Greeley) successfully carried a measure removing obsolete provisions from the state constitution, including one that recognized liquor prohibition ended in 1933 and another proclaiming qualified territorial electors were eligible to run for the 1876 state legislature.

Sen. Jim Dyer (D-Durango) successfully sponsored a bill in 2000 removing many obsolete provisions (some over 100 years old) dealing with railroads, including one forbidding passengers from playing cards on a train.

Here are some items likely to be removed from the legislative fridge in 2002 through a bill by Sen. Bill Thiebaut (D-Pueblo).

Back in 1861, Colorado's Territorial Legislature passed a bill that's now 140 years old. A person claiming to be a lawyer who isn't can be sued and forced to fork over three times the amount received from a client, with half going to the client and half going to the county where the lawsuit is brought.

The 1860 census recorded 34,277 Colorado inhabitants. Only a few were lawyers so they were in great demand. There were no law schools. The University of Colorado came into being in the same 1861 territorial legislature, and the University of Denver didn't begin until 1864 as the Colorado Seminary.

To become a lawyer, you apprenticed (as did Abe Lincoln) to an attorney and read the law. Then you were orally questioned by an appointed committee of lawyers or Supreme Court justices to see if you knew enough to get a license.

Today, our Colorado Consumer Protection Act allows a deceived client to collect treble damages (without any money going to the county), and criminal impersonators can get 18 months in the penitentiary.

Another ancient epic is from an era when anyone with a pick and shovel could go out in the morning a pauper and return in the evening encrusted with riches. This 1874 territorial law forbade claim jumpers who "by threats or violence" stop a lawful miner from working a mining property, and take possession themselves. The penalty could be a fine up to $250 and 30 to 180 days in jail. Today's laws on assault and trespass provide much greater penalties.

One hundred and eleven years ago, a law still on the books forbade state electors from betting on an election. If you bet, you faced a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Enforce this law today and half the adults will fill the county jails. Also, this law doesn't stop persons working in Colorado and registered to vote in another state from betting.

"Social gambling" is now legal. The Colorado Court of Appeals recently noted, "a basketball pool between devoted patrons of a neighborhood bar and liquor authority inspectors incidental to a bona fide social relationship" is legal. So if it's social gambling, betting is ok, If it's not social gambling, our criminal statute forbids it (except of course, for bingo, casinos, lottery, powerball, horse and dog racing licensed by the state). But the 1891 betting on election law should be repealed.

With the state treasury nearly bare of surplus money, this is the year for the golden motto "it doesn't cost a dime" to be a priority for state legislators.

Can you imagine what a wonderful year 2002 could be if each of our 100 legislators cleaned out parts of the fridge, tossing moldy laws into the garbage can? We could save a lot of printing costs in future years.

(Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado legislature and spent many hours writing bills repealing obsolete statutes.)

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