Dirks, Dance Halls, and the Law

IT'S A DIZZYING task, killing off all those obsolete statutes that keep springing up in Minnesota's law books like perennial weeds. These are the archaic "blue law" hang-overs from legislative sessions dating back to 1905 that no one's bothered to review since, and which by as early as this Thursday will go gentle into that good night on the Capitol floor.

State House and Senate staffers took up the campaign to lighten the books last summer, combing through stacks of old livestock marketing and levy extension statutes, and delivering up a list of over 250 legal dinosaurs. Sen. Deanna Wiener (DFL-Eagan), who is leading the charge, characterizes the effort as a bipartisan, Darwin-style exercise in natural selection and likens it to other efforts at streamlining government--"sunsetting" task forces, boards, commissions, and offices which continue to exist out of sheer inertia.

A few cases in point, complete with statute numbers:

141.33-34: A 1969 statute that forbade any contract for instruction in social skills between patrons and owners of dance halls, studios, or ballrooms exceeding $500. Presumably, says Wiener, lawmakers were hoping to bust up a scam that set unreasonable price tags on learning to waltz, curtsy, and fill out a dance card. Killing the statute could conceivably open up the free market once again--a move good for tutors in the finer graces and bad for poor, clumsy Minnesotans.

166.01-10: A group of 70-year-old statutes regulating the operation, tolls, licensing, and safety standards of ferry boats on rivers, lakes, and streams before the era of modern bridge engineering. (The last commercial ferry in Minnesota went to dry dock in 1958, when the Baudette-Rainy River bridge was completed.) "That's f-e-r-r-y, ferry," adds Wiener. "This is not a move to ban those little magical creatures from our state."

254.02: A 1917 statute authorizing the commitment of chronic inebriates to a Hospital Farm outside Wilmar, with lands and buildings to be funded by the state. Apparently, milking cows and reaping the autumn harvest proved a less effective means for sobering men up than the more popular 12-step programs of late. The Farm went belly-up a couple decades later.

625: This statute was enacted in territorial times, almost 150 years ago, and reads, "Every person who in the presence of any court makes an affray or threatens to kill or beat another... or who cometh in the courts and contends with hot and angry words, to the disturbance of the peace, may be ordered, without process or other proof, to be of good behavior for a term not exceeding sixth months" (i.e. a public scolding). This little flaunting of constitutional due process also forbids the carrying of a 'dirk, dagger, sword, pistol or other dangerous weapon without reasonable cause to fear assault." The punishment for violating one's right to bear arms? Sureties and bonds, to be held by the court for up to six months in case of recidivism. ÒI think we've got this area covered by more recent laws," says Wiener--though this bit of legislation could prove useful in today's war on hot words and dirk smuggling.

17.14, Subd. 2, et al.: The 24 different statutes under this heading all take up the task of defining a "person." The sponsor of this deletion asked in his comments whether all of the various legal definitions of personhood should be made uniform, but Wiener avers that "by now we ought to know what a 'person' is."

191.09: This 1943 statute directed all unorganized militias to fall under the command of the state guard, a unit of the military which was later converted into a branch of the National Guard. The law discusses the governor's authority to call up volunteers and recruits, and to punish stragglers and deserters. "Now that we don't have a state guard," says Wiener, "there's no need for laws that regulate it." About the need these days to regulate unorganized militias: "Well, that's a whole other matter."

17.23: This 1925 statute states that "no person within the state shall buy, sell, or expose for sale... the state flower or any species of Ladyslipper or any member of the orchid family dug, plucked or pulled in any manner from public or private land. The punishment shall be a misdemeanor, and a fine not less than $10 and not more than $50." The offices of both Wiener and House sponsor Mike Delmont (DFL-Lexington) received a storm of protest from horticulturists and garden-variety plant lovers over the repeal of this statute. And for good reason: Though Ladyslippers, prized for their exquisite yellow flowers, are cultivated by many nurseries across the state, protesters argued that scrapping this provision would open up the black market in orchids, and allow scofflaws to profit from raids on their native habitat. 17.23, and a handful of others, have been scratched from the list of R.I.P. candidates.

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