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If you’ve ever tried to find an open wine shop on a Sunday afternoon in Manhattan, then you know that New Yorkers suffer the aftereffects of a blue law, which limits certain types of retail activity on the seventh day. You can call these laws a variety of names � inconvenient, archaic, and obsolete � but what on earth is blue about them? In fact, many American laws have funny names. We’ve got blue-sky laws, a seemingly nonsensical name for state securities laws, lemon laws to protect consumers, and Megan’s Law to protect children, among others. But to get back to wine, why should the ancient Puritan laws protecting the Christian Sabbath be called “blue”? A popular theory has it that blue laws got their name from the blue paper on which they were originally printed. This has all the advantages of a good theory; it’s brief, tidy, and sensible. The only problem: There is no evidence that such laws were ever printed on blue paper. More likely, the term blue law derives from the eighteenth-century slang term “blue,” referring to strict moral codes. Blue is also the color of the blue-sky laws, which sound like an overly optimistic meteorological regulation. But they refer to state securities laws and regulations. The term was made popular by the 1917 U.S. Supreme Court case Hall v. Geiger-Jones Co., in which Justice Joseph McKenna described such laws as targeting “speculative schemes that have no more basis than so many feet of ‘blue sky.’ “ American history is full of strange-sounding laws. There were the infamous Jim Crow laws passed by Southern legislatures after the Civil War. These segregation measures took their name from a character in early-nineteenth-century minstrel shows. Today, things are a little more standardized, with each new federal law identified by a dry session number (something like PL 102-89). But every new law also gets a popular name so that Congress can sell it to the public. A quick glance at the Popular Name Table of the U.S. Code, however, shows that Congress has a distinctly tin ear. The Healthy Meals for Healthy Americans Act, for example, sounds like a scheme to withhold food from sick people. Meanwhile, a law to regulate tobacco � which cries out for something snappy like the “Clean Lungs Act” � is given the dreary title of Tobacco Control Act. Sour Taste? State legislators often do a more acceptable job than Congress with popular names. What could be better for protecting consumers against shoddy cars than a lemon law? A more difficult question is how the word “lemon” came to represent defective goods in the first place. One theory has it that lemons were frequently left rotting in markets; another explanation notes that in slot machines, three lemons in a row yields no money; a third possibility is simply that lemons are sour. Another popular method for labeling a statute is to name it after a victim of the crime to be prevented by the law. New Jersey’s Megan’s Law, for example, which requires a public notice when a convicted sex offender moves into a neighborhood, is named for Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old girl murdered by a convicted sex offender. You wouldn’t think that lawmakers would commemorate the perpetrator of a crime, but there is at least one example: the Son of Sam Law, which requires that convicted criminals give all money earned from media deals to their victims or the state. The first such law was passed in New York in response to serial killer David Berkowitz (a.k.a. “Son of Sam”), who sought to sell his story. Ultimately, however, all that work was for naught, since the U.S. Supreme Court later struck down that law on First Amendment grounds. Which just goes to show that anything that can go wrong will go wrong � otherwise known as Murphy’s Law. Adam Freedman, an associate at Schulte Roth & Zabel, writes the Dear Diary column for sibling publication The New York Law Journal. His collection of short stories, Elated by Details, was published by Mayhaven Publishing in December.

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