How are federal laws named?

February 28th, 2013

I have written at some great length that naming laws after people–especially victims–is a terrible idea as far as public policy goes. To vote against the law is to vote against the person. This is Ted Frank’s Law. Likewise, naming laws after things people really like, such as Civil Rights or Voting RIghts or Violence Against Women, is a bad idea. To vote against the law–even if there is a legitimate disagreement with the law, suggests that you want woman to incur violence, or you want civil rights to be violated. It makes demagoguery so much easier.

So how are federal laws named? There’s an article for that, titled “How Federal Statutes Are Named” authored by a Yale Law School students. Here is a summary:

The naming of [U.S.] federal statutes for individuals has received surprisingly little systematic attention. The purposes of this article are to trace the history of federal statutory naming conventions and to identify as authoritatively and as completely as possible the persons and political issues Congress has decided to honor or highlight in this fashion, as well as the proliferation of abbreviations as a further shortening of the short title.

Importantly, the article highlights certain “politically charged descriptions” of statutes:

One final convention for naming statutes that we identified is the politically charged description. Names like the “Pro-Children Act of 2001” 143 or the “Justice for All Act of 2004” 144 put opponents of the legislation at a rhetorical disadvantage, implying they are anti-children or in favor of justice only for some. Brian Christopher Jones argues that some such names are also misleading, as they imply that the measure enacted will succeed. 145 To some extent, of course, nearly all legislative names that are more than a dispassionate description are politically charged. Legislators are, after all, in the business of passing legislation and getting credit for doing so with the voters. The opportunity to enhance the chances of success by making nonsubstantive changes to a bill’s name is an easy choice.

The article has an entire section on naming laws after victims:

¶37 Another convention for federal statutes is to name the legislation after a victim of the particular ill the law addresses. Perhaps the most well-known example of this convention is Megan’s Law,which requires convicted sex offenders to register with local law enforcement upon release from incarceration. 124 The federal law, along with its many state counterparts, is named for Megan Kanka, who was brutally raped and murdered in 1994 by a neighbor who had been convicted twice previously of being a sexual predator. 125 Interestingly, most other laws named for female victims follow the convention of Megan’s Law and use the victim’s first name only, even though the identity of the victim is known. 126 The more common convention for laws named for male victims, however, is to use both a first and a last name in the statute. 127

124. Pub. L. No. 104-145, 110 Stat. 1345 (1996). 125. 142 Cong. reC. 10311 (1996) (statement of Rep. Dick Zimmer). 126. E.g., Jennifer’s Law, Pub. L. No. 106-177, tit. II, 114 Stat. 35, 36 (2000); Aimee’s Law, Pub. L. No. 106-386, § 2001, 114 Stat. 1464, 1539 (2000); Kristen’s Act, Pub. L. No. 106-468, 114 Stat. 2027 (2000). 127. E.g., Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act, Pub. L. No. 103-322, tit. XVII, 108 Stat. 1796, 2038 (1994); Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act of 2007, Pub. L. No. 110-189, 122 Stat. 639; Danny Keysar Child Product Safety Notification Act, Pub. L. No. 110-314, § 104, 122 Stat. 3016, 3028 (2008).

And laws named to honor people:

¶38 An additional convention for short titles is to honor individuals. Frequently the honorees are advocates associated with the fight for the legislation, such as the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, named for the plant manager at Goodyear who famously sued the company for sex discrimination in its pay practices. 128 Even before the reign of the official short title, some laws had become known by the names of persons other than the sponsors, and not always to honor them. 129 Now formal short titles often used these names, though typically in conjunction with a description of the subject matter of the bill. Other laudatory names honor recently deceased members of Congress 130 or retiring members who are also the bill’s sponsor. 131

And of course, a discussion of the name “Obamacare.”

A new variant is the application of a political opponent’s name to a proposed or enacted measure thought to be (or sought to be made) unpopular, as in the repeated use by Republican politicians of “Obamacare” to describe the program enacted by Congress in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), Pub. L. No. 111-148, 124 Stat. 119 (2010), which President Obama signed on Mar. 23, 2010. See Fighting to Control the Meaning of “Obamacare,” n.y. tImes, Mar. 26, 2012, at A12. During his brief bid for the Republican presidential nomination, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty further modified the popular name for the PPACA, calling it “Obamneycare” in an attempt to link his rival, Mitt Romney, to the incumbent president. Jill Lawrence, Obamacare, Romneycare, Obamneycare—Never Mind, nat’l JoUrnal: 2012 deCoded (Jan. 8, 2012, 10:29 a.m.), At the same time, congressional opponents of the legislation seem to avoid referring to the PPACA by its official title, even in attempts to repeal the law. The second bill introduced in the Republican-controlled 112th Congress was titled “An Act to repeal the job-killing health care law and health care-related provisions in the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010,” and given the short title “Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act,” H.R. 2, 112th Cong. (2011). The text of the bill refers to the 2011 act only as the “Job-Killing Health Care Law” and by its public law number. Other legislation from the 112th Congress similarly refers to the PPACA in whole or in part as the “jobkilling health care law,” H.R. 1184, 112th Cong. (2011), the “job-killing Federal employer mandate,” S. 20, 112th Cong. (2011), or simply by its public law number, Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2012, Pub. L. No. 112-74, 125 Stat. 786 (2011). At least one bill to repeal the PPACA, however, uses the Obamacare moniker, including the short title: “Repeal of Obamacare Act,”H.R. 6079, 112th Cong. (2012). In the 2012 presidential election campaign, it appeared that supporters of President Obama embraced the term Obamacare as a name for the new law, perhaps spurred in part by the President’s own adoption of it in speeches and in campaign materials. See Peter Baker, Democrats Embrace Once Pejorative “Obamacare” Tag, n.y. tImes, Aug. 4, 2012, at A11.

I recently learned in France that all bills are numbered, rather than named. I think that’s a great idea.

H/T Legal Informatics Blog