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Baffling antiquated laws still on SC’s books

By Fleming Smith, Post and Courier

If you consider yourself a law-abiding citizen, you might want to check South Carolina’s code of laws again. Despite attempts by legislators to repeal some of the state’s more outdated laws, many holdouts from the 20th and even 19th centuries mean a person could be breaking the law weekly or nightly — though without any real consequences.

Some laws seem like a throwback to colonial times: Don’t send or accept a challenge to duel. Don’t seduce a woman with promises of marriage. When state Sen. Stephen Goldfinch stumbled across these laws and others a few years ago, he was shocked.

“There’s a lot of crazy stuff in there,” he said.

During his time in the House of Representatives, Goldfinch, R-Georgetown, introduced a bill in 2015 to repeal 11 of the state’s most outdated laws. He said they were chosen at random.

“I asked my staffers to pick the most ridiculous ones,” Goldfinch said.

Mostly, he wanted to prove a point that the state’s representatives could repeal dysfunctional or pointless laws. He hoped the bill could pave the way for a repeal of Act 388, a controversial law that shifted funding for public schools from residential property taxes to a higher statewide sales tax, starting in 2007. The act made it more difficult for schools to raise money and disproportionately benefited home owners.

His bill passed the House unanimously but died in the Senate.

“A lot of these smaller bills wither and die on the vine because the Senate doesn’t have the bandwidth,” Goldfinch said, contending the body generally focuses on more bigticket items.

Goldfinch still thinks those 11 laws he identified, and many more, need to be reexamined by state legislators. “They shouldn’t be on the books if we’re not enforcing them,” he said.

Many of the laws go back to the early 1900s or late 1800s. In a law from 1905, the state outlaws a man seducing a woman under the promise of marriage, resulting in a fine and imprisonment up to a year, if convicted.

The law clarifies that the conviction can’t rest on the woman’s testimony alone, particularly if someone can prove the woman was “lewd and unchaste” before the alleged seduction. Also, if the man does decide to marry the woman he seduced, the matter’s concluded, the law states. A law originating in 1880 says that men or women guilty of adultery or fornication can be fined between $100 and $500 and imprisoned between six months and a year. Another law still on the books outlaws sodomy, with jail time of five years and at least a $500 fine. Laws against sodomy were ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003. Dueling carries harsh penalties as well, with anyone involved in a duel losing their right to vote or hold office.

The state law also holds Sundays sacred. No dancing halls can operate on Sundays, and it’s unlawful to perform any “worldly work,” though they offer several exceptions. No shopping on Sundays, either, unless it’s for light bulbs or other necessities.

To protect the youth, the state outlaws minors playing on pinball machines. That’s a more recent law, dating to 2008.

Rumors abound about other odd laws still on South Carolina’s books, though these haven’t been located in the existing codes — no horses are allowed in bathtubs, some warn, and there’s a myth that it’s legal in Charleston to beat your wife with a stick on the courthouse steps if it’s a Sunday.

“There is no mechanism built into our system to systematically review our statutes and question the relevance of old statutes,” said Lewis Burke, a University of South Carolina law professor who’s studied the state’s legal history.

With the laws that have caveats, such as what items can be sold on Sundays, he attributes any changes to lobbying by merchants and tourist-heavy communities who wanted to please outside visitors.

With laws like these, Burke said, it’s easier for the legislature to take no action at all. That leaves plenty of hidden gems to illustrate South Carolina’s long, and somewhat bizarre, legal history.