North Dakota’s Laws Have Grown 1,781% Since 1877


The legislature is in recess for crossover, and legislators are at home in their districts enjoying a much-deserved breather.

The bills the House passed, and the bills the Senate passed, are each being sent to the opposite chamber for committee hearings, debate and votes. In the first part of the legislative session the stakes are lower. The House can vote on something knowing that there’s still an opportunity for more debate and scrutiny in the Senate, and vice versa. But post-crossover is when the rubber meets the road for the legislature. Now the bills that pass (those not needing reconciliation through conference committee) are just a signature from Governor Jack Dalrymple away from becoming the law for the whole state.

“Ninety-four of us get to make laws for the other 700,000,” said House Majority Leader Al Carlson on the floor of the House last week. That’s a heady responsibility, and it’s worth noting as we enter the post-crossover time just how many new laws past legislatures have created for the state.

Measuring the scope of the law isn’t easy, because which metric do you use? You could count words, but some laws use a lot of words to do very little, while others use few words to do a lot. You could count sections and subsections, but that’s imperfect for the same reason. So, to measure the growth of the laws of the State of North Dakota I chose pages. It’s not perfect, for the reasons I mentioned above plus reasons such as changes in the way the laws are printed such as margins and fonts, but over time I think it paints a fairly accurate picture.

A sort of scary picture. With assistance from Kylah Aull, Manager of Library and Records for the North Dakota Legislative Council, I got a sampling of page numbers from the printed North Dakota code from the very first laws established for North Dakota back in territorial days in 1877 to present. Here’s the data:


Here’s growth trend:


To be fair, my time intervals aren’t standard, and we can point out that modern North Dakotans face a lot more issues arising from new technologies than the north Dakotans of 1877. That’s fair, but the point is clear. The number of laws “on the books” for North Dakota has grown, dramatically, over the years to the point where North Dakotans have 15,181 pages worth of laws they must obey at risk of one form of penalty or another. That’s 1,781% more pages of laws than citizens of the territory that existed before we were a state.

And remember, not being aware of the law is no excuse.

This is something for legislators to consider as they cast votes on bills that will become laws in the coming weeks. Perhaps our legislators should consider the words of Calvin Coolidge, who said in giving advice to his father who had been elected to serve in the state legislature of Vermont, “It is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones.”

Coolidge is described by Amity Shlaes in a recent biography as “our great refrainer.” North Dakota could use some more “refrainers.”

Rob Port is the editor of In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters.

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  • ec99

    This pretty much traces the evolution of government from servant to master.

  • Anon

    Since Mr. Hack apparently doesn’t realize it, most states operated under the unwritten common law until the codification and uniform code movement began in the last half century.

    • Rob

      Even supposing that’s a valid criticism, how then do you explain 1960 to present?

      • Eric Wittliff

        … your graph is warped.. As a percentage per year your larger growth is 43 to 60 (17years). It doubles. It takes another 53 years to double again. It also nearly double 1913 to 1943. This would support Anon’s idea.

        Given some “pages” are one line 16000 pages is small. We are blesses in ND with a relativity simple laws that most people and business can take the time to understand and use if the need to.

        • Rob

          If you’d read the post a little more closely, I point out that this isn’t a perfect metric.

          Anon’s “idea” is just that. Something a troll came up with to obfuscate the point.

          The point is that the number of laws we have to live by increase every legislative session. Now, you can nit-pick that if you want, but the simple point remains. We’re a little less free after every legislative session.

      • Anon

        So your criticism concerning a point that there was a movement to codify statues which began around the 1960s is asking me why there were more lies beging around the 1960s?

        • Rob

          I think you’re making up this whole “natural law” thing.

          The laws that matter are the laws on the books, and those have grown significantly.

          That’s undeniable.

          • wj

            Anon did not mention natural law. He or she mentioned common law. On that point, Anon is probably only partially right. North Dakota was from the beginning a code law, not a common law, state. He is right about the uniform code movement, but I am not sure how that explains the increase except when it applies to the uniform codes.

          • Matthew Hawkins

            If ND based its laws on England, as most US states did, it is not a “code law” state (properly called ‘Civil Law’). Common law is based on England, Civil law is based on France. I only know one state based on Civil Law, Louisiana, because it was a French colony.

          • Anon

            It’s not a natural law argument, hack. The common law was the general applicable laws as developed through the centuries by the courts. Natural law is a wholly separate, philosophical idea about the source and derivation of laws.

            If common law battery had universally been the intentional harmful and intentional touching of another, the legislature wouldn’t need to pass a law reflecting that since the court’s could simply look to prior decisions concerning battery, it’s defenses and nuances instead of having to codify that body of law into many statutes. It’s not that there wasn’t law, it’s that it wasn’t reflected in the statutes. Battery wasn’t only the subject of common law, either, it touched everything from criminal laws to trusts, wills, and estates as well. It wasn’t until fairly recently in our country that there was an effort to codify all that into statutes.

            Thanks for showing your complete lack of understanding the issue, however, hack.

          • Matthew Hawkins

            The best example of what Anon is talking about is the Uniform Commercial Code. It was written to harmonize all laws across the US. I wouldn’t be surprised if adoption of this law added 1500-2000 pages of law. It may have eliminated no pages because all other contracts would still be under the old structure.

            But adopting the UCC wasn’t stupid, it was what ND had to do. No large company will do business without the UCC. It gives them certainty, they know the rules of every state.

          • Anon

            Not only that, the legislature kept a lot of blank pages to old citations, such as this one to the old probate code, when they replaced it with the uniform probate code.

      • Anon

        So your criticism concerning a point that there was a movement
        to codify statues, which began around the 1960s, is asking me why there were more laws beginning around the 1960s?

  • Waski_the_Squirrel

    Voters expect their politicians to “do something.” Politicians oblige with new laws.

    No politician gets votes by removing laws.

  • ec99

    When you get down to it, it isn’t even the number of laws, which is outrageous in itself, but their nature. Most of them are directed at telling citizens what they cannot do: bottle rockets, Sunday shopping, running there car unattended in their driveway, abortion, divorce, pharmacies. As I’ve said, the Legislature is patriarchal, and we are all children. Ayn Rand once commented: “How do you turn citizens into criminals? Make it impossible not to break the law.” That is what we have now at all levels.

    • Flamejob5

      As awful as a Patriarchal legislation is, Matriarchal would be even worse due to the naturally more nurturing & emotional state of women..

      In fact, the current legislature (both national & state levels) may already sway towards being Matriarchal in our pussified culture where most women almost totally dominate over their husbands actions.