Laws are rules that define our rights and responsibilities. Laws regulate the activities of citizens and of governments. They are made official through approval by a legislature, a court, or another governmental agency. Almost every aspect of our lives is affected by law. Criminal law helps keep people safe. Laws that apply to trade and business help our economy thrive. Laws limiting the power of government protect the freedom of citizens to speak openly, practice their chosen religion, and maintain their privacy.
Philosophers once believed that prehistoric people lived without laws, in a "state of nature." Back then, the philosophers thought, people obeyed only force. As a result, life became so dangerous that leaders had to create laws to protect people and property.
Scholars no longer believe this. Instead, it is thought, people probably worked out rules for getting along with one another as soon as they began living in groups. Group members came to accept and support the manners, customs, and beliefs that controlled the living habits and behavior of the group. These shared customs and habits of life (sometimes called "folkways") were most likely the real beginnings of laws and of moral codes.
Some of these customs were written down as the earliest recorded laws, or codes of law. In Egypt written laws date from about 3400 BC. Those in Mesopotamia date from 3500 to 2360 BC, the period of the Sumerians.
The Babylonians developed the Code of Hammurabi, one of the greatest of the ancient codes. Hammurabi was king of Babylonia from 1792 to 1750 BC. His code was found on three fragments of a stone column at Susa, in what is now Iraq, in 1901. It included laws defining penalties for crime and laws governing the rights of those who were injured, owned property, or made loans. It also specified procedures for enforcing the law.
Among the Hittites, who were an ancient people of Asia Minor and Syria, written law was first recorded around 1300 BC. Among the ancient Hebrews, written laws appeared around 1200 BC. In European history, the most famous early written code was the Twelve Tables of Roman law. These rules governed crimes, property, debts, and injuries. They were recorded on bronze and wooden tablets ("tables") in 450 BC. The complete body of Roman law was codified (written down) about a thousand years later, in AD 535, by order of the emperor Justinian. The Justinian Code had a great influence on the development of modern law in Europe and in countries around the world where Europeans exerted their influence.
In medieval Europe, laws varied from place to place. Powerful landholders created and followed their own laws. Towns and small cities that were controlled by guilds also made their own laws. Special kinds of laws developed to govern social and economic relationships between localities. Mercantile law, for example, was a group of rules and regulations that governed the way merchants and traders across Europe conducted business. These rules were designed to prevent cheating in trade. The Roman Catholic Church had its own set of laws, called canon law. It incorporated some aspects of Roman law.
In the late Middle Ages (1300-1500), local laws and specialized laws began to give way to laws that governed entire nations.
As new nations arose in continental Europe, many adopted national laws based on principles of ancient Roman law. The law of those countries that developed this way is called civil law. These laws were eventually codified in the 1800's. The most famous of the civil codes was the Napoleonic Code, or Code Civil, adopted in France in 1804.
A different system of law, called common law, evolved at the same time in England. In place of written laws, or statutes, common law relied on judicial decisions. That is, to decide a dispute, judges in common law courts would look to prior court decisions in similar cases. In contrast, judges in civil law courts would consult a code for guidance. Common law took form gradually, one case at a time, and established countless rules. Among them was the right of a person accused of a crime to have a jury trial and to be presumed innocent until proved guilty. A famous compilation of these rules is the treatise of Sir William Blackstone, written in the late 1700's.
Because it served as the foundation for much of the law in the United States, English common law remains an important source of guidance for American courts today. Blackstone is still cited in decisions of the United States Supreme Court. The law of one state, Louisiana, grew out of the Napoleonic Code and from the civil-law tradition, not the common law, because Louisiana was settled by the French, not the English.
Just as small communities once banded together to develop national law, nations have developed international law to regulate relations with each other. As early as the 1500's in Europe, legal thinkers such as Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), a Dutch jurist and statesman, and Emerich de Vattel (1714-67), a Swiss jurist, worked out systems of international law. Then as now, the primary goals were to try to prevent war and promote good relations between countries.
International law today consists of treaties--formal agreements between countries--and long-standing customs. International law is enforced in international courts. The most important is the International Court of Justice at The Hague, in the Netherlands. (For additional information, see the article International Law.)
In the United States, laws exist at three levels. Federal laws apply to the entire country. State laws apply to activities within the borders of one state. Local laws apply within a city or township.
The supreme law in the United States--the law with which all other law must conform--is set out in the United States Constitution. States have adopted their own constitutions, governing the law in each state. These written documents determine the organization of government as well as the rights of the people. Like the United States Constitution, most state constitutions are quite short. They express rules in general terms, leaving courts and lawmakers to work out specific applications of the rules.
At federal, state, and local levels, written laws are adopted by a legislature or, in the case of local laws, a council elected by the people. When a legislature approves a new law, it is said to enact legislation. In addition, government agencies are sometimes authorized by a legislature to develop rules in their area of expertise. These "administrative" rules and regulations have the force of law.
Federal laws are adopted by the U.S. Congress. A bill, which is a proposal for a new law, may be introduced in either house of Congress--the Senate or the House of Representatives. The bill is first reviewed by a committee of legislators who may hold hearings to get opinions from experts and others who may be interested in the issues addressed by the bill. The bill must be approved by the committee and then by both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Then, to become law, it must be signed by the president. (For more information, refer to the articles United States, Congress of the, and United States, Government of the.) If the president vetoes, or rejects, a bill, the veto may be overridden by a vote of at least two-thirds of both the House and Senate. Similarly, governors must sign state legislation, and state legislatures have the power to override a veto.
Statutes typically may be repealed (canceled) or amended (changed) by a majority of the legislature with the agreement of the executive. Constitutions are not as easy to change. Article V of the U.S. Constitution provides that any amendment must be proposed by two-thirds of both houses of Congress, or two-thirds of the states' legislatures. Then the amendment must be ratified (approved) by "the Legislatures of three-fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three-fourths thereof."
Judges, as well as legislators, make law. Judges adopt rules of court that dictate procedures in the court system. Judges also interpret other sources of law, elaborating on the rules, expanding or narrowing their effects, or applying the rules to new situations. American courts, as the English courts before them, generally look to prior decisions on a legal issue for guidance on how to decide cases that raise a similar issue. By declaring legal rules and interpreting other sources of law such as the Constitution and statutes, courts provide guidance for those who seek to comply with the law and predict its requirements.
U.S. law can be divided into two broad categories, public law and private law. Public law concerns the legal relationship between the government and citizens. It includes constitutional law, criminal law, regulations of administrative agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service and the Environmental Protection Agency, and the law governing court procedures. A violation of a person's civil rights, a theft or murder, and a case of illegal pollution are matters that involve public law.
Private law, often called civil law, regulates the relationships between private individuals and between individuals and nongovernmental entities, such as businesses and other organizations. Private law includes the law of contracts (agreements between people or between people and businesses), torts (wrongful acts that are not crimes but cause harm), and property. Matters such as the purchase of a home, a divorce, inheritance, and the formation of a corporation all involve private law.
Police, courts, and government agencies all play roles in enforcing the law. The role of the police is to investigate crimes and apprehend those suspected of committing crimes.
In the United States, each town, each county, and each state has its own police force. The federal government has several law enforcement agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. These various law enforcement agencies have to work together frequently. Sometimes they form task forces to coordinate their efforts to investigate particular types of crime.
The role of the courts is to provide a forum for weighing evidence of crimes and settling disputes fairly. The U.S. Constitution, as well as state and federal laws, sets out the minimum standards for fairness in court proceedings. These include the right of those accused of crimes or involved in disputes to be notified of the proceedings and to be heard by the court before a decision is made. The jury system is very important to the goal of fairness. Jurors are ordinary people who are chosen to hear and decide court cases. Their decisions are seen as fair because they are not associated with the government or with one side or the other in any case. Court proceedings are open to the public so that people can assess for themselves whether the processes are fair.
Government agencies may also help enforce the law. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), for example, enforces the law prohibiting employment discrimination by seeking reinstatement or back pay for employees who can show that they have been denied a job or a promotion because of their race, sex, religion, veteran's status, age, or disability. Agencies may act through administrative sanctions or through lawsuits. Administrative sanctions are penalties imposed by an agency for violations of its rules. For example, the Internal Revenue Service may fine citizens who do not pay the taxes they owe.
When a crime is committed, police and agents of law enforcement agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation help uncover and collect the evidence. Then attorneys representing the government, called prosecutors or district attorneys, bring charges against the suspected lawbreaker in court. The charges are reviewed by a judge or a grand jury to make sure they have some basis ("probable cause") for bringing the accused to trial. A judge decides whether the accused should be released pending trial or kept in jail. If the judge chooses to release the accused, an amount of money known as bail must be placed with the court as a guarantee that the accused will return at an appointed time to stand trial.
To help ensure fairness, defendants in criminal cases are protected by certain guarantees. For example, anyone accused of a serious crime, or felony (a crime carrying a penalty of over one year's imprisonment), has the right to a jury trial. Every person accused of a serious crime is also entitled to a lawyer to help present a defense against the charges. If the defendant (the accused person) cannot afford to pay a lawyer, the court will provide an attorney. People may represent themselves in court if they wish. But people without legal training are rarely skilled enough in the law to say and do the things that are needed to properly represent their own interests in court.
Only a small portion of criminal cases--10 percent or less--actually go to trial. Many criminal charges are dropped before trial or rejected by a judge or jury as unfounded. And most convictions are the result of guilty pleas before trial. Often the accused will plead guilty in exchange for a shorter sentence or the dismissal of another charge. This "plea bargaining" saves the government the cost of having to conduct a trial. It also allows prosecutors to handle more cases than they could if each case went to trial before a judge or jury.
Criminal law is enforced through punishment, usually imprisonment and fines. Legislatures set limits on the penalties for each crime, and those limits are contained in the statutes defining the crime. While a jury may decide at trial whether or not a person committed the crime charged, it is usually the judge who decides what punishment to impose within the limits set by law.
Laws other than criminal laws are enforced through private lawsuits. A person who claims that another has failed to obey the law may sue that person. The plaintiff (the person bringing the suit) asks the court for a judgment forcing the defendant (the person being sued) to comply or pay a sum of money. For example, a person who thinks another has failed to carry out a written agreement may sue for "breach of contract."
In lawsuits between private parties, the parties and their lawyers investigate the facts and present their sides of the story to the courts in written papers and at trial. The standard of proof required in private lawsuits is not as high as that required in criminal cases. Plaintiffs do not need to prove their claims "beyond a reasonable doubt," the standard in criminal trials. They only need to show that their claims are "probably true." However, most lawsuits are settled out of court. That is, the parties reach an agreement before the case goes to trial.
Lawyers help people understand the law and obtain the benefits and protections it provides. In the United States, lawyers (also called attorneys) are college-trained women and men who have completed law school and are licensed to practice law.
In law school, students learn how to analyze and present legal problems. They study the Constitution, treaties, statutes, and regulations of the United States, as well as state laws. Many students study the laws of other countries and international law. Law students also study court decisions and the ways that judges use them to decide new cases. As lawyers, they will be better able to predict how the courts will decide their cases, to advise their clients what actions to take, and to persuade judges why the law supports their clients' interests.
Basic courses cover criminal law, torts, contracts, and property law. Students also take courses in professional responsibility (the ethical standards required of lawyers), civil and criminal procedure (the rules that govern how laws are enforced), and special forms of law, such as tax law, copyright law, or family law. A huge variety of human activity is discussed in law school classes. Lawyers must learn how to study new subjects, spot problems, absorb information quickly, and present information clearly in writing and in speech.
After law school, a lawyer may decide to concentrate on a particular kind of law, such as criminal law, labor law, patent law, or tax law. Some of the special fields require additional training. Those who practice tax law, for example, usually have some training in mathematics and accounting.
After students have completed formal law school training, they must secure a license to practice law. They must take and pass a difficult test, known as the bar examination. Usually lawyers must take a bar examination in each state in which they wish to practice, because each state has its own rules about training and licensing lawyers.
Applicants also must show that they are of good character. A committee appointed by the court or bar association investigates the background, training, employment, and past behavior of the applicant. Lawyers are bound by a code of ethics that requires them to maintain the highest standards of fidelity and honesty, and to devote themselves to the cause of their clients. The code requires that as well as being loyal to their clients, lawyers must be fair and honest with judges and other lawyers.
Ethical rules are enforced by the bar association and the courts of each state. Should a lawyer violate these ethical rules, the lawyer can be punished and may even lose his or her license to practice law.
Much of a lawyer's work is carried on in an office, not in the courtroom. Lawyers advise clients about how to comply with the law, help clients resolve legal problems, and negotiate settlements in disputes. They help people set up and manage businesses and draw up wills and contracts.
When a dispute arises, lawyers may initiate a lawsuit, asking a court to decide whose position is right. For instance, a lawyer may help a person who has been injured by a product bring a lawsuit against the product's manufacturer. The process of preparing, developing, and resolving or trying these lawsuits is called litigation. It is usually much less costly to settle disputes out of court, before trial. The only disputes that end up in the courtroom are those that lawyers and clients cannot resolve in other ways.
In criminal cases, lawyers may be prosecutors or defense attorneys. Prosecutors present the evidence against the accused and argue for conviction. They work for the government. A defense attorney represents the defendant and tries to show why the defendant deserves to be released or acquitted, or to receive a less serious penalty. Public defenders are lawyers who are paid by the government to represent people who have been accused of crimes and cannot afford to hire a defense attorney.
Lawyers may work on their own or as members of a law firm. Law firms range in size from a few lawyers to hundreds. The largest firms have offices in several cities. Some lawyers work for only one business or client, as "house counsel," rather than for a law firm representing many clients. Lawyers are involved in public interest litigation, too, working on cases involving welfare, education, the environment, or the rights of consumers. Some of these lawyers work for legal aid societies, unions, and other organizations that represent people who cannot afford to hire their own lawyers.
The broad and varied training lawyers receive helps many succeed in careers other than law. Lawyers often go into business or government. Some enter politics and run for public office. Of all the presidents of the United States, more than two-thirds were licensed to practice as lawyers. Lawyers also may become judges, either by election or political appointment.
Police officers are government employees whose job is to protect their community from crime and enforce the law. Police officers investigate crimes, apprehend people suspected of crimes, collect evidence needed to prove crimes, and often testify in court about these activities. Police also work to prevent crime. They help control crowds and protect dignitaries, and they visit schools and other organizations to help teach others about safety and crime prevention. Police officers may specialize in a certain type of police work; for example, canine experts work with police dogs, and arson investigators become experts on fires. The term "police" usually refers to municipal law enforcement agencies. Agencies that perform similar duties include state highway patrols, public safety agencies, and county sheriffs' offices.
A variety of other careers are vital to fair and efficient law enforcement. Counselors and advocates help victims of crime and witnesses to crime. Scientists and other experts analyze evidence such as blood, fibers, drugs, and firearms. Government employees maintain arrest records, fingerprint records, even DNA profiles of offenders. Each court is staffed by administrators, secretaries, clerks, bailiffs, and security officers.
Probation officers prepare sentencing recommendations and monitor offenders who are released on probationthat is, on conditions such as maintaining employment or submitting to drug tests. Prisons employ guards, wardens, doctors, psychiatrists, and ministers. Parole boards in many states decide whether prisoners may be released from prison before the end of their sentences. Parole officers are similar to probation officers, keeping track of those who are released from prison and working with them to make sure they meet the conditions of release.
Nancy Jean King
Vanderbilt University School of Law