It seems normative that a law cannot enumerate any specific persons or companies to be included or excluded from its provisions. Imagine: "Violation of this section is punishable by a $100 fine; Joel S. to pay triple."

Such rules could surely cause conflicts of interest, and I know from programming that very specific heuristics tend to be brittle in practice. Are there specific legal principles which put this practice off limits?

  • Person-specific laws are passed, though they generally benefit the person rather than restricting what they may do. Do you mean prohibitive laws? And there have been many laws that target specific companies, beneficially of punitively (not by name, but by description, e.g. describing Walmart in terms of number of employees).
    – user6726
    Sep 19, 2016 at 4:57
  • @user6726 OK -- and whether laws are inclusive or exclusive, what stops them from naming Wal-Mart directly? Sep 19, 2016 at 15:22
  • Mostly politics. Entities are directly named when the act is considered beneficial. Your local congressman will often sponsor a bill to relieve Sally Smith or Jack Coffee Shop of some tragic problem. When a town wants to penalize a company, they somewhat avoid an outcry by describing the company, rather than naming it.
    – user6726
    Sep 19, 2016 at 15:28
  • 1
    @AaronBrick Are you just asking about civil law legal systems (like those in continental Europe), or about common law ones as well (like the UK, US, Canada, Australia, etc.)?
    – cpast
    Sep 19, 2016 at 17:08
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    One particular kind of "targeted" law is a bill of attainder, which in its original form is a law declaring that a certain person is guilty of a crime and is to be punished. The US Constitution specifically prohibits them. Sep 19, 2016 at 23:51

1 Answer 1


It may "seem[] normative" that "a law cannot enumerate any specific persons or companies to be included or excluded from its provisions." But in fact it is not generally the case. There are various kinds of laws that traditionally have named specific people or entities to define their scope. These include:

  • In nineteenth-century England, a divorce could only be granted by a specific law passed by Parliament, naming the persons to be divorced. I am not sure when the practice stopped.

  • In the US during the nineteenth century (and I think the early twentieth century also) a corporation was normally formed by a specific law granting a charter of incorporation to the named company.

  • In the US during the period 1866-1870 there were a number of laws passed permitting former Confederate officers and officials who were presented by the 14th amendment from holding office under the US or any state to hold office again, as the amendment provides for. Eventually Congress passed a more general amnesty.

  • It was once common for the English Parliament to pass bills of attainder. These were legislative declarations that a particular person was guilty of a particular crime, generally without any trial or other process. Sometimes the specific sentence was also imposed by such a bill. This was sufficiently resented that the US Constitution specifically forbids Congress or any state from passing such a bill.

  • It was once common for actual laws to grant payments to specific people for specific purposes. This is no longer common, but there is no legal bar to it in either the UK or the US that I know of.

  • The UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 contains a provision enabling Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children to continue to receive royalties for performances and adaptations, publications and broadcast of "Peter Pan" whose author, J. M. Barrie, had given his copyright to the hospital in 1929, later confirmed in his will. This right is to persist even after the expiration of ordinary copyright for the play, but is not a full grant of copyright.

  • Laws or ordinances invoking eminent domain to take the property of particular individuals for particular purposes are common, mostly at the local level.

In the US, the Equal Protection Clause generally forbids laws which treat people, or groups of people, differently unless there is some rational basis for the distinction. But in some cases a plausible basis is asserted and such laws are passed.

  • 2
    Other examples which are contemporary are private immigration bills, micro-targeted tax breaks, and certain appropriations bills. Post office names and real estate transfers are handled by individual legislation, and so are military officer commissions.
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 9, 2021 at 23:01

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