Congress to Remove ‘Lunatic’ From Law Wording

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Dec 8, 2012

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When laws are drafted, they reflect the times. But after decades on the books, laws can become outdated, irrelevant, or even offensive; to remedy this, a congressional effort to rid U.S. laws of indelicate language has been underway. California recently replaced the term “mental retardation” with “intellectual disability.” The word “senile” and has been swapped out for “person with dementia;” and some states found “drunkard” to be too loose a term and have replaced it with “person with alcoholism.” 

The most recent word to be stricken from law, however, holds a slighting connotation that a person is crazed, even possessed, or out of control. The word “lunatic” is now being considered for removal from the language of the law; and specifically from one discussing a bankruptcy matter. 

During a time when many consumers and businesses are being forced into bankruptcy, some legislatures find this wording that appears in one law, a bit offensive: as it appears now, the law includes a mention that a bank can act as a “committee of estates of lunatics.” These “lunatics,” (i.e., people struggling to make ends meet), may not appreciate the title. 

The measure to have the word removed was sponsored by Senators Kent Conrad (Democrat from North Dakota) and Mike Crapo (Republican from Idaho) and backed by mental health advocates including the Mental Health Liaison Group. The law passed through the Senate in May, and through the House with a 398-1 vote. It is now awaiting President Obama’s approval. Both sponsoring Senators say they want modern law to reflect a better understanding of mental illness and disease. 

The action was only opposed by one legislator, Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas, who was reported by the Associated Press as saying, “not only should we not eliminate the word ‘lunatic’ from federal law when the most pressing issue of the day is saving our country from bankruptcy, we should use the word to describe the people who want to continue with business as usual in Washington.” 

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