What is a Repeal?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A repeal is an abolition, also sometimes called an abrogation, of a law. Repeals most often occur because changing social norms make a law appear to be unreasonable or questionable. Sometimes they happen in response to agitation by members of society who lobby for a repeal of a law which they feel is unreasonable, and in other cases, lawmakers may independently decide on a repeal. Legislative bodies actually regularly quietly repeal laws without attracting very much public attention.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

In an express repeal, a law is passed to specifically abrogate a previous law. An example of this is the 21st Amendment to the United States Constitution, which repealed the infamous 18th Amendment. By contrast, in an implied repeal, a new law is passed which conflicts with an old law and the new law takes precedence, effectively voiding the old law even though it may remain on the books.

In some nations, people have agitated for removal of outdated laws which are not enforced, or which have been superceded by other laws in implied repeals. Many people are surprised to learn that there are a number of peculiar laws on the books in their area, banning all manners of activity from walking snakes on Sundays to wearing pants while female. Some of these weird laws are collected in compendiums for general amusement, but they are never actually enforced, and repealers argue that while they are historical curiosities, they should still be stricken from the legal books.

In other cases, people who want to repeal laws want to do so because they believe that a law has very real and harmful effects. Many nations have repealed laws which institutionalize racism, for example, as social norms have changed and there has been a greater push for equal rights. Likewise, repealers have focused their efforts on laws which discriminate against other groups, such as women, gays and lesbians, and religious minorities, with the goal of making society more free and equal.

The process for repealing a law varies by nation. In some areas, citizens can use the initiative and referendum system to hold a vote calling for a repeal. In others, citizens must urge lawmakers to sponsor a repeal, and once the repeal reaches a legislative body, they can push other lawmakers to support it. Legislators tend to be especially amendable to suggestions in election years, when they are actively working to retain votes from constituents.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@nony - Like it or not, the repeal of prop 8 in California was bound to happen. There’s no way that measure could have withstood judicial scrutiny – and it would be misleading to assume that it had the backing of the legislature.

Whether you agree with the idea of gay marriage or not, there is no doubt that society has undergone a cultural change in the past fifty years. In some states sodomy is still punishable by death. Other states actually have laws against miscegenation, the idea that people of different races can marry.

Of course those laws don’t actually get enforced. Are these things fair or unfair? I suppose it depends on your personal beliefs. But the times, they are changing.


@NathanG - Well, the courts certainly do have too much power. Look at what happened in California in 2010, when the people of the state wanted a ban on same sex marriage. Proposition 8 defined marriage as between a man and a woman. This was a state referendum. The people had spoken.

Yet immediately cries of discrimination went forth and a movement to repeal prop 8 was afoot. As could be expected the measurement made it to the courts, and a judge ruled the whole thing unconstitutional.

Where was the voice of the people in this? It was nullified by one judge. The whole thing was patently unfair in my opinion.


I think that repealing unpopular laws is never easy. That’s because a vote to repeal in the Congress usually requires a super majority to make it good. Also, the president can override it with a veto pen.

As we know, we live in a very divided country. It’s hard to get a super majority to agree on anything. Some people, sensing that the usual legislative approach to repeal does not work, have chosen to go through the courts.

Their bet is to make the laws unconstitutional, as decided by the courts. This is actually not a formal repeal process as I understand it but it’s become the de facto approach used to making laws null and void.

Personally I think that we should go back to repealing laws the old fashioned way. The courts have too much power in my opinion.

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