What is a Sunset Clause?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

A sunset clause or provision is part of a law or statute that can repeal the law or parts of it at a specified time period. The history of using such clauses is lengthy, dating to the Roman Republic’s use of it to pass temporary laws when specific things like tax increases or extra military spending were needed for a short period of time. The phrase ad tempus concessa post tempus censetur denegata was added to many laws and roughly translates to the statement that a clause was admitted for a short period of time and then denied after that time period had ended. This was used to determine length of time that a person could hold a certain position too, and fell into disuse when Roman leaders became dictators and held their offices for an indeterminate time period.

Term limits are an example of a sunset clause.
Term limits are an example of a sunset clause.

In the modern sense, the sunset clause is used often in democratic laws. For instance, the limitations on holding office in the US, like the presidency, can be considered one type of such a clause. Though the people elect a president, he or she is only president for eight years at most. From a democratic standpoint, limiting the term in office makes sense so that a person occupying a position cannot abuse her power or fail to act as representative of the people she represents. Even if there is no limitation placed on the number of times a person can hold an office, the law means that the people must reaffirm, by voting, the person’s continued right to hold the office.

A sunset clause is often built into specific laws that may be undergoing a trial period. A law can have a definite expiration date, at which point people who established the law, either voters or elected officials must vote to continue the law. Sometimes senators are criticized for allowing certain regulations and statutes to expire without voting to keep them in place. This can either take place by ignoring the expiration date, or by voting not to keep a regulation.

What the clause can affirm in a democracy is that laws and provisions may be flexible. This is not always the way the people of a country think about law. Once it’s a law, it’s always a law, according to some. People who care deeply about an issue may need to understand if a sunset clause exists for certain statutes, and to communicate with their elected officials if an important law is set to expire and they would like it to remain.

For instance, the USA PATRIOT Act had several sunset clauses nullifying some parts of the act after a certain time period. These include provisions on wiretapping under a variety of circumstances. The Act was renewed in 2006, but still contains some parts with expiration dates. Public support of the act has waned and when these specific clauses expire again, it will be hard to tell whether senators will vote to renew them. People who don’t support the act, or who do, often take an active part in the democracy by communicating their wishes to their representatives through letters or by voting.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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