Any good student of Schoolhouse Rock knows how a bill becomes a law, but how do laws get removed, like obsolete laws?

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    i guess the appropriate title would be "Is there a process for removing a US Federal law"?? I was asking about US law Jan 9 at 21:53
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    A sane legal system does not (usually) remove a law. It may repeal a law in the sense it cannot be applied from now on. the particular law is still applicable to events and actions that happened in the meantime.
    – fraxinus
    Jan 10 at 17:47
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    @fraxinus Repealing a law is what the layman thinks off when talking about "removing" a law, especially if crossing language barriers. If I look at the "official" English translation for the German constitution, it says "repealed" for several articles (like the one about re-unification). The German word used is "weggefallen", which means "fallen away" literally, and "ceased to exist" figuratively.
    – DevSolar
    Jan 11 at 15:50

3 Answers 3


"The hand that giveth, may taketh away."

Should a legislative body wish to, essentially, delete a law in its entirety, they simply pass another bill to that effect in the same manner as the first - that parity of method is important, anything less is not the hand that gaveth..

These can vary from as little as a single sentence, "Law X is hearby repealed in its entirety," to more comprehensive language, to far more complex versions that only remove part, usually by language such as "Title Whatever, Chapter Whatever, Section Whatever, Paragraph Whatever, of the Such and Such Code is changed to read as follows..." where what follows basically looks like someone edited the existing law with Track Changes turned on.

But in most cases they're not removed, per se. They're frequently just left on the books and go unenforced. Laws that end up in this category are often the subject of entertaining internet articles, but a lack of enforcement is recognized by scholars as having sufficiently similar effect to the law having been repealed.

Laws may also be removed by Judicial action in many jurisdictions, e.g. by being declared unconstitutional or the like, this usually follows the pattern discussed above, creating a condition wherein any attempt to enforce the law will be nullified until the courts (either the same level or higher) decide to nullify the finding of unconstitutionality. In many cases, legislatures or executives will amend such policies, rather than try and wait the courts out. Both of these scenarios, in dizzying array, are found in the history of the U.S.' brief period of banning the death penalty from 1972 to 1976.

An interesting case which was raised elsewhere is known as a de facto repeal, where instead of repealing the specific law in question, some other part of the law is amended or repealed upon which the target law necessarily depended. There are numerous laws on the books that have no effect because the specific cases they name as triggers are now legally impossible to achieve.

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    Is there a difference between which tactic is used depending on what level of government is wishing for a law to no longer to be a law? E.g. Is it more common at the federal level for a new law to rescind an old one, versus a state law just being left unenforced? Jan 9 at 21:46
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    @JeffLambert I don't have data either way, and therefore the scientist in me says we assume there's no difference between levels. That said, state laws (which include municipal laws) probably get shot down in courts more frequently simply because such laws have to survive challenges in more courts than do Federal laws. But it may also be true that State laws are proportionally more numerous, etc. Jan 9 at 21:58
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    As a reference to the first bit of this, see the US 21st Amendment. Jan 9 at 22:18
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    It is worth observing a third method, which is that some statutes (lots at the state level, and mostly tax legislation at the federal level) have built in sunset provisions and repeal themselves after their predetermined expiration date if not extended.
    – ohwilleke
    Jan 9 at 23:00
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    Importantly, when a law is ruled unconstitutional, it remains on the books and can take effect again if the court decision is overturned. (This happened in some states after Roe was overturned.)
    – alphabet
    Jan 10 at 1:47

Naturally the details will vary from country to country. But the basic way that a law is removed is by being repealed. A government can remove a law by passing a bill.

So in the USA, to remove a Federal law, Congress must pass a bill that "repeals" the law. That bill must be approved by House and Senate, and then signed by the President (like any other bill)

A bill can repeal all, or only specific clauses of a previous act.

That is the main way that a law can be removed. Laws that can't be applied become redundant and void. For example, there are laws regarding "Indians not taxed" in the US law, but since 1924, this category of person doesn't exist, so any law regarding them is void.

Judicial actions can also remove laws, if they are incompatible.

Some laws have specific time limitations, (called "sunset clause") and cease to be laws when their time runs out.

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    Two nits: Firstly a bill would repeal a previous act, rather than a previous bill. (If the previous bill was passed, it became an act, if not passed, it has no effect.) Secondly a bill can repeal at any granularity it chooses, so sub-clause, sentence, or word are all possible. (I assert that deleting letters from an act is not repealing part of it, but amending it - which is also possible of course.) Jan 10 at 9:12
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    The relevant Wikipedia page (although it's more UK-centric) is at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Repeal
    – Stuart F
    Jan 10 at 13:09

Schoolhouse Rock has misled you.

Congress doesn't pass "laws"; Congress passes bills (so far, so good). The bills passed by the Schoolhouse-Rock process do have the force of law, but are not themselves what you might usually think of as "laws". Instead, think of the whole set of US Laws more like Wikipedia (or any other wiki), and the bills more like individual edits to that wiki.

Most of what you would usually think of as law (as opposed to regulation) is grouped in United States Code. You can read it all here, if you have quite a lot of time on your hands.

If you look at (most) individual pieces of legislation, what they actually do is either appropriate funds, direct an agency to do something, or make changes to US Code (or a combination of all three). The first two probably are not what you think of as laws. The third is usually just a text edit, which gives you the simplest answer: text that can be edited can be re-edited or deleted.

Billy's Law is a clean, recent example. Section 2 is the clear example: (a) directs the Attorney General to go do something. (b) gives him funding to do it. (c) makes changes to a previous law's insertion in US Code.

(the previous change, public law added State requirements for reporting missing children to USC section 5780 of Title 42, which was later moved to section 41308 of Title 34. Fortunately, this was a simple one!)

So: none of the formal legislative rulemaking process is different than Schoolhouse Rock suggests, but the content of a bill is a lot more complex than "School bus must stop at railroad crossing."

  • That program was designed to use simple examples in order to explain the concept to younger kids, of course it isn't going to be covering all of the details.
    – Joe W
    Jan 10 at 14:50
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    @JoeW Right. But since fully half the question text is a reference to it, a good answer probably needs to address that simplification.
    – fectin
    Jan 10 at 15:05
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    The question isn’t asking if school house rock was accurate.
    – Joe W
    Jan 10 at 15:29

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