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The Law and Federal, State, and Local Courts, Types of Law

organized government, supreme Law, unreasonable searches, executive actions, Article VI

In the United States, one of the most important types of law is what is called constitutional law. Under constitutional law, the courts review the actions of the state or federal government in relation to specific clauses of the Constitution. In Article VI of the Constitution, the Founders established that the Constitution “and the Laws of the United States…shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby.” Hence state laws as well as federal statutes and executive actions must conform to the Constitution as the courts interpret it.

Besides constitutional law, many other types of law exist. Certainly for the writers of the Constitution, the concept of natural law was essential. They agreed with the ideas expressed by 17th-century English philosopher John Locke. He believed that all individuals are equal and independent, and that they create an organized government in order to protect their collective right to a stable, secure society. Hence any individual’s claim to the authority to create a military force or serve as a police officer has been surrendered to government. But individuals retain other “inalienable” rights such as life and liberty. Neither government, nor law, nor elected officials can interfere with these privileges. Some of the rights retained by individuals are described in the Bill of Rights, which limits the powers of Congress, for example, to establish a religion, abridge freedom of speech, or subject Americans to unreasonable searches and seizures.

Common law consists of the customary practices created by past judicial decisions. After a court makes a decision, that decision becomes a precedent that can be applied to similar cases. Based on precedents and their application to new cases, judicial reasoning proceeds by analogy from one case to another and accumulates to form the basis of common law. Today common law is relevant mostly to areas of family law and disputes over contracts and property.

Administrative law involves disputes regarding the authority of administrative agencies that are part of the executive branch and whether their procedures are legal. Thus regulations established by federal agencies—such as decisions by the Forest Service on logging operations on public land or the Food and Drug Administration’s regulations for more testing of a new medicine—may be contested by private individuals and corporations. These agencies are not elected bodies, and yet they have emerged as independent policy-makers. The rise in importance of these administrative agencies challenges the rule of law because officials who are appointed, not elected, exercise a great deal of power. As a result, their rules and procedures have been questioned. At issue is whether the authority of these agencies is abused and whether their actions are within the jurisdictions delegated to them by Congress.

The most prevalent form of law today is statute law enacted by a legislative body at the federal, state, or local level. Statute law pertains to either criminal law or civil law. Civil law, which governs the relations of citizens among themselves, involves disputes between citizens and between government and citizen where no crime is alleged. Criminal law deals with public law and public order and mostly covers acts of violence, theft, and fraud. The government—at the federal, state or local level—prosecutes criminal cases and imposes jail sentences, fines, or other forms of punishment on people who are found guilty. The federal government prosecutes comparatively few criminal cases, but it defines crimes, assists in investigations, and helps determine sentencing guidelines.

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