After reading this chapter, you should be able to do the following:
- Distinguish different philosophies of law—schools of legal thought—and explain their relevance.
- Identify the various aims that a functioning legal system can serve.
- Explain how politics and law are related.
- Identify the sources of law and which laws have priority over other laws.
- Understand some basic differences between the US legal system and other legal systems.
Law has different meanings as well as different functions. Philosophers have considered issues of justice and law for centuries, and several different approaches, or schools of legal thought, have emerged. In this chapter, we will look at those different meanings and approaches and will consider how social and political dynamics interact with the ideas that animate the various schools of legal thought. We will also look at typical sources of “positive law” in the United States and how some of those sources have priority over others, and we will set out some basic differences between the US legal system and other legal systems.
2.1 What Is Law?
Law is a word that means different things at different times. Black’s Law Dictionary says that law is “a body of rules of action or conduct prescribed by controlling authority, and having binding legal force. That which must be obeyed and followed by citizens subject to sanctions or legal consequence is a law.”
2.1.1 Functions of the Law
At the macro level, the law can serve to (1) keep the peace, (2) maintain the status quo, (3) preserve individual rights, (4) protect minorities against majorities, (5) promote social justice, and (6) provide for orderly social change. Conversely, the law may keep peace at the expense of individual rights, maintain an ugly status quo, be used to oppress minorities, and so on. In a democracy, law ultimately reflects how society wishes to order itself, while in authoritarian governments law is used to perpetuate existing power structures. In that sense, law and politics are deeply entwined. At the micro level, law provides the “rules of the game” for how businesses operate, restricting certain kinds of conduct and encouraging others. It can be used by businesses as a shield, giving them freedom to operate, and as a sword, such as when using litigation as a strategy against their competitors.
2.1.2 Law and Politics
In the United States, legislators, judges, administrative agencies, governors, and presidents make law, with substantial input from corporations, lobbyists, and a diverse group of nongovernment organizations (NGOs) such as the American Petroleum Institute, the Sierra Club, and the National Rifle Association. In the fifty states, judges are often appointed by governors or elected by the people. The process of electing state judges has become more and more politicized in the past fifteen years, with growing campaign contributions from those who would seek to seat judges with similar political leanings.
In the federal system, judges are appointed by an elected official (the president) and confirmed by other elected officials (the Senate). If the president is from one party and the other party holds a majority of Senate seats, political conflicts may come up during the judges’ confirmation processes. Such a division has been fairly frequent over the past fifty years.
In most nation-states (as countries are called in international law), knowing who has power to make and enforce the laws is a matter of knowing who has political power; in many places, the people or groups that have military power can also command political power to make and enforce the laws. Revolutions are difficult and contentious, but each year there are revolts against existing political-legal authority; an aspiration for democratic rule, or greater “rights” for citizens, is a recurring theme in politics and law.
Law is the result of political action, and the political landscape is vastly different from nation to nation. Unstable or authoritarian governments often fail to serve the principal functions of law.
2.2 Schools of Legal Thought
After reading this section, you should be able to do the following:
- Distinguish different philosophies of law—schools of legal thought—and explain their relevance.
- Explain why natural law relates to the rights that the founders of the US political-legal system found important.
- Describe legal positivism and explain how it differs from natural law.
- Differentiate critical legal studies and ecofeminist legal perspectives from both natural law and legal positivist perspectives.
There are different schools (or philosophies) concerning what law is all about. Philosophy of law is also called jurisprudence. There are many philosophies of law and thus many different jurisprudential views, and the two main schools are legal positivism and natural law. Although there are others, these two are the most influential in how people think about the law.
2.2.1 Legal Positivism: Law as Sovereign Command
We could examine existing statutes—executive orders, regulations, or judicial decisions—in a fairly precise way to find out what the law says. For example, we could look at the posted speed limits on most city roads and conclude that the “correct” or “right” speed is no more than twenty-five miles per hour. Or we could look a little deeper and find out how the written law is usually applied. Doing so, we might conclude that thirty-one miles per hour is generally allowed by most state troopers, but that occasionally someone gets ticketed for doing twenty-seven miles per hour in a twenty-five miles per hour zone. Either approach is empirical, even if not rigorously scientific. The first approach, examining in a precise way what the rule itself says, is sometimes known as the “positivist” school of legal thought. The second approach—which relies on social context and the actual behavior of the principal actors who enforce the law—is akin to the “legal realist” school of thought.
Positivism has its limits and its critics. New Testament readers may recall that King Herod, fearing the birth of a Messiah, issued a decree that all male children below a certain age be killed. Because it was the command of a sovereign, the decree was carried out (or, in legal jargon, the decree was “executed”). Suppose a group seizes power in a particular place and commands that women cannot attend school and can only be treated medically by women, even if their condition is life-threatening and women doctors are few and far between. Suppose also that this command is carried out, just because it is the law and is enforced with a vengeance. People who live there will undoubtedly question the wisdom, justice, or goodness of such a law, but it is law nonetheless and is generally carried out. To avoid the law’s impact, a citizen would have to flee the country entirely. During the Taliban rule in Afghanistan, from which this example is drawn, many did flee.
The positive-law school of legal thought would recognize the lawmaker’s command as legitimate; questions about the law’s morality or immorality would not be important. In contrast, the natural-law school of legal thought would refuse to recognize the legitimacy of laws that did not conform to natural, universal, or divine law. If a lawmaker issued a command that was in violation of natural law, a citizen would be morally justified in demonstrating civil disobedience. For example, in refusing to give up her seat to a white person, Rosa Parks believed that she was refusing to obey an unjust law.
2.2.2 Natural Law
The natural-law school of thought emphasizes that law should be based on a universal moral order. Natural law was “discovered” by humans through the use of reason and by choosing between that which is good and that which is evil. Here is the definition of natural law according to the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy: “Natural law, also called the law of nature in moral and political philosophy, is an objective norm or set of objective norms governing human behavior, similar to the positive laws of a human ruler, but binding on all people alike and usually understood as involving a superhuman legislator.”
Both the US Constitution and the United Nations (UN) Charter have an affinity for the natural- law outlook, as it emphasizes certain objective norms and rights of individuals and nations. The US Declaration of Independence embodies a natural-law philosophy. The following short extract should provide some sense of the deep beliefs in natural law held by those who signed the document.
The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
The natural-law school has been very influential in American legal thinking. The idea that certain rights, for example, are “unalienable” (as expressed in the Declaration of Independence and in the writings of John Locke) is consistent with this view of the law. Individuals may have “God-given” or “natural” rights that government cannot legitimately take away. Government only by consent of the governed is a natural outgrowth of this view.
Civil disobedience—in the tradition of Henry Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, or Martin Luther King Jr.—becomes a matter of morality over “unnatural” law. For example, in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. claims that obeying an unjust law is not moral and that deliberately disobeying an unjust law is in fact a moral act that expresses “the highest respect for law”: “An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law….. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.”
Legal positivists, on the other hand, would say that we cannot know with real confidence what “natural” law or “universal” law is. In studying law, we can most effectively learn by just looking at what the written law says, or by examining how it has been applied. In response, natural-law thinkers would argue that if we care about justice, every law and every legal system must be held accountable to some higher standard, however hard that may be to define.
It is easier to know what the law “is” than what the law “should be.” Equal employment laws, for example, have specific statutes, rules, and decisions about racial discrimination. There are always difficult issues of interpretation and decision, which is why courts will resolve differing views. But how can we know the more fundamental “ought” or “should” of human equality? For example, how do we know that “all men are created equal” (from the Declaration of Independence)? Setting aside for the moment questions about the equality of women, or that of slaves, who were not counted as men with equal rights at the time of the declaration—can the statement be empirically proven, or is it simply a matter of a priori knowledge? (A priori means “existing in the mind prior to and independent of experience.”) Or is the statement about equality a matter of faith or belief, not really provable either scientifically or rationally? The dialogue between natural-law theorists and more empirically oriented theories of “what law is” will raise similar questions. In this book, we will focus mostly on the law as it is, but not without also raising questions about what it could or should be.
2.2.3 Other Schools of Legal Thought
The historical school of law believes that societies should base their legal decisions today on the examples of the past. Precedent would be more important than moral arguments.
The legal realist school flourished in the 1920s and 1930s as a reaction to the historical school. Legal realists pointed out that because life and society are constantly changing, certain laws and doctrines have to be altered or modernized in order to remain current. The social context of law was more important to legal realists than the formal application of precedent to current or future legal disputes. Rather than suppose that judges inevitably acted objectively in applying an existing rule to a set of facts, legal realists observed that judges had their own beliefs, operated in a social context, and would give legal decisions based on their beliefs and their own social context.
The legal realist view influenced the emergence of the critical legal studies (CLS) school of thought. The “Crits” believe that the social order (and the law) is dominated by those with power, wealth, and influence. Some Crits are clearly influenced by the economist Karl Marx and also by distributive justice theory. The CLS school believes the wealthy have historically oppressed or exploited those with less wealth and have maintained social control through law. In so doing, the wealthy have perpetuated an unjust distribution of both rights and goods in society. Law is politics and is thus not neutral or value-free. The CLS movement would use the law to overturn the hierarchical structures of domination in the modern society.
Each of the various schools of legal thought has a particular view of what a legal system is or what it should be. The natural-law theorists emphasize the rights and duties of both government and the governed. Positive law takes as a given that law is simply the command of a sovereign, the political power that those governed will obey. Recent writings in the various legal schools of thought emphasize long-standing patterns of domination of the wealthy over others (the CLS school) and of men over women (ecofeminist legal theory).
2.3 Basic Concepts and Categories of US Positive Law
After reading this section, you should be able to do the following:
- In a general way, differentiate contract law from tort law.
- Consider the role of law in supporting ethical norms in our society.
- Understand the differing roles of state law and federal law in the US legal system.
- Know the difference between criminal cases and civil cases.
Most of what we discuss in this book is positive law—US positive law in particular. We will also consider the laws and legal systems of other nations. But first, it will be useful to cover some basic concepts and distinctions.
2.3.1 Law: The Moral Minimums in a Democratic Society
The law does not correct (or claim to correct) every wrong that occurs in society. At a minimum, it aims to curb the worst kind of wrongs, the kinds of wrongs that violate what might be called the “moral minimums” that a community demands of its members. These include not only violations of criminal law, but also torts, and broken promises. Thus it may be wrong to refuse to return a phone call from a friend, but that wrong will not result in a viable lawsuit against you. But if a phone (or the Internet) is used to libel or slander someone, a tort has been committed, and the law may allow the defamed person to be compensated.
There is a strong association between what we generally think of as ethical behavior and what the laws require and provide. For example, contract law upholds society’s sense that promises—in general—should be kept. Promise-breaking is seen as unethical. The law provides remedies for broken promises (in breach of contract cases) but not for all broken promises; some excuses are accepted when it would be reasonable to do so. For tort law, harming others is considered unethical. If people are not restrained by law from harming one another, orderly society would be undone, leading to anarchy. Tort law provides for compensation when serious injuries or harms occur. As for property law issues, we generally believe that private ownership of property is socially useful and generally desirable, and it is generally protected (with some exceptions) by laws. You can’t throw a party at my house without my permission, but my right to do whatever I want on my own property may be limited by law; I can’t, without the public’s permission, operate an incinerator on my property and burn heavy metals, as toxic ash may be deposited throughout the neighborhood.
2.3.2 The Common Law: Property, Torts, and Contracts
Even before legislatures met to make rules for society, disputes happened and judges decided them. In England, judges began writing down the facts of a case and the reasons for their decision. They often resorted to deciding cases on the basis of prior written decisions. In relying on those prior decisions, the judge would reason that since a current case was pretty much like a prior case, it ought to be decided the same way. This is essentially reasoning by analogy. Thus the use of precedent in common-law cases came into being, and a doctrine of stare decisis (pronounced STAR-ay-de-SIGH-sus) became accepted in English courts. Stare decisis means, in Latin, “let the decision stand.”
Most judicial decisions that don’t apply legislative acts (known as statutes) will involve one of three areas of law—property, contract, or tort. Property law deals with the rights and duties of those who can legally own land (real property), how that ownership can be legally confirmed and protected, how property can be bought and sold, what the rights of tenants (renters) are, and what the various kinds of “estates” in land are (e.g., fee simple, life estate, future interest, easements, or rights of way). Contract law deals with what kinds of promises courts should enforce. For example, should courts enforce a contract where one of the parties was intoxicated, underage, or insane? Should courts enforce a contract where one of the parties seemed to have an unfair advantage? What kind of contracts would have to be in writing to be enforced by courts? Tort law deals with the types of cases that involve some kind of harm and or injury between the plaintiff and the defendant when no contract exists. Thus if you are libeled or a competitor lies about your product, your remedy would be in tort, not contract.
The thirteen original colonies had been using English common law for many years, and they continued to do so after independence from England. Early cases from the first states are full of references to already-decided English cases. As years went by, many precedents were established by US state courts, so that today a judicial opinion that refers to a seventeenth- or eighteenth-century English common-law case is quite rare.
Courts in one state may look to common-law decisions from the courts of other states where the reasoning in a similar case is persuasive. This will happen in “cases of first impression,” a fact pattern or situation that the courts in one state have never seen before. But if the supreme court in a particular state has already ruled on a certain kind of case, lower courts in that state will always follow the rule set forth by their highest court.
2.3.3 State Courts and the Domain of State Law
In the early years of our nation, federal courts were not as active or important as state courts. States had jurisdiction (the power to make and enforce laws) over the most important aspects of business life. The power of state law has historically included governing the following kinds of issues and claims:
- Contracts, including sales, commercial paper, letters of credit, and secured transactions
- Property, including real property and intellectual property
- Domestic matters, including marriage, divorce, custody, adoption, and visitation
- Securities law
- Environmental law
- Agency law, governing the relationship between principals and their agents.
Over the past eighty years, however, federal law has become increasingly important in many of these areas, including banking, securities, and environmental law.
2.3.4 Civil versus Criminal Cases
Most of the cases we will look at in this textbook are civil cases. Criminal cases are certainly of interest to business, especially as companies may break criminal laws. A criminal case involves a governmental decision—whether state or federal—to prosecute someone (named as a defendant) for violating society’s laws. The law establishes a moral minimum and does so especially in the area of criminal laws; if you break a criminal law, you can lose your freedom (in jail) or your life (if you are convicted of a capital offense). In a civil action, you would not be sent to prison; in the worst case, you can lose property (usually money or other assets), such as when Ford Motor Company lost a personal injury case and the judge awarded $295 million to the plaintiffs or when Pennzoil won a $10.54 billion verdict against Texaco.
|Plaintiff brings case; defendant must answer or lose by default
|Prosecutor brings case; defendant may plea guilty or go to trial
|Preponderance of evidence
|Beyond a reasonable doubt
|To settle disputes peacefully, usually between private parties
|To maintain order in society
|To punish the most blameworthy
|To deter serious wrongdoing
|Money damages (legal remedy)
|Fines, jail, and forfeitures
|Injunctions (equitable remedy)
|Specific performance (equity)
Regarding plaintiffs and prosecutors, you can often tell a civil case from a criminal case by looking at the caption of a case going to trial. If the government appears first in the caption of the case (e.g., U.S. v. Lieberman, it is likely that the United States is prosecuting on behalf of the people. The same is true of cases prosecuted by state district attorneys (e.g., State v. Seidel). But this is not a foolproof formula. Governments will also bring civil actions to collect debts from or settle disputes with individuals, corporations, or other governments. Thus U.S. v. Mayer might be a collection action for unpaid taxes, or U.S. v. Canada might be a boundary dispute in the International Court of Justice. Governments can be sued, as well; people occasionally sue their state or federal government, but they can only get a trial if the government waives its sovereign immunity and allows such suits. Warner v. U.S., for example, could be a claim for a tax refund wrongfully withheld or for damage caused to the Warner residence by a sonic boom from a US Air Force jet flying overhead.
2.3.5 Substance versus Procedure
Many rules and regulations in law are substantive, and others are procedural. We are used to seeing laws as substantive; that is, there is some rule of conduct or behavior that is called for or some action that is proscribed (prohibited). The substantive rules tell us how to act with one another and with the government. For example, all of the following are substantive rules of law and provide a kind of command or direction to citizens:
- Drive not more than fifty-five miles per hour where that speed limit is posted.
- Do not conspire to fix prices with competitors in the US market.
- Do not falsely represent the curative effects of your over-the-counter herbal remedy.
- Do not drive your motor vehicle through an intersection while a red traffic signal faces the direction you are coming from.
- Do not discriminate against job applicants or employees on the basis of their race, sex, religion, or national origin.
- Do not discharge certain pollutants into the river without first getting a discharge permit.
In contrast, procedural laws are the rules of courts and administrative agencies. They tell us how to proceed if there is a substantive-law problem. For example, if you drive fifty-three miles per hour in a forty mile-per-hour zone on Main Street on a Saturday night and get a ticket, you have broken a substantive rule of law (the posted speed limit). Just how and what gets decided in court is a matter of procedural law. Is the police officer’s word final, or do you get your say before a judge? If so, who goes first, you or the officer? Do you have the right to be represented by legal counsel? Does the hearing or trial have to take place within a certain time period? A week? A month? How long can the state take to bring its case? What kinds of evidence will be relevant? Radar? (Does it matter what kind of training the officer has had on the radar device? Whether the radar device had been tested adequately?) The officer’s personal observation? (What kind of training has he had, how is he qualified to judge the speed of a car, and other questions arise.)
What if you unwisely bragged to a friend at a party recently that you went a hundred miles an hour on Main Street five years ago at half past three on a Tuesday morning? (If the prosecutor knows of this and the “friend” is willing to testify, is it relevant to the charge of fifty-three in a forty-mile-per-hour zone?)
In the United States, all state procedural laws must be fair, since the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment directs that no state shall deprive any citizen of “life, liberty, or property,” without due process of law. (The $200 fine plus court costs is designed to deprive you of property, that is, money, if you violate the speed limit.) Federal laws must also be fair, because the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution has the exact same due process language as the Fourteenth Amendment. This suggests that some laws are more powerful or important than others, which is true. The next section looks at various types of positive law and their relative importance.
In most legal systems, like that in the United States, there is a fairly firm distinction between criminal law (for actions that are offenses against the entire society) and civil law (usually for disputes between individuals or corporations). Basic ethical norms for promise-keeping and not harming others are reflected in the civil law of contracts and torts. In the United States, both the states and the federal government have roles to play, and sometimes these roles will overlap, as in environmental standards set by both states and the federal government.
2.4 Sources of Law and Their Priority
After reading this section, you should be able to do the following:
- Describe the different sources of law in the US legal system and the principal institutions that create those laws.
- Explain in what way a statute is like a treaty, and vice versa.
- Explain why the Constitution is “prior” and has priority over the legislative acts of a majority, whether in the US Congress or in a state legislature.
- Describe the origins of the common-law system and what common law means.
In the United States today, there are numerous sources of law. The main ones are (1) constitutions—both state and federal, (2) statutes and agency regulations, and (3) judicial decisions. In addition, chief executives (the president and the various governors) can issue executive orders that have the effect of law.
In international legal systems, sources of law include treaties (agreements between states or countries) and what is known as customary international law (usually consisting of judicial decisions from national court systems where parties from two or more nations are in a dispute).
As you might expect, these laws sometimes conflict: a state law may conflict with a federal law, or a federal law might be contrary to an international obligation. One nation’s law may provide one substantive rule, while another nation’s law may provide a different, somewhat contrary rule to apply. Not all laws, in other words, are created equal. To understand which laws have priority, it is essential to understand the relationships between the various kinds of law.
Constitutions are the foundation for a state or nation’s other laws, providing the country’s legislative, executive, and judicial framework. Among the nations of the world, the United States has the oldest constitution still in use. It is difficult to amend, which is why there have only been seventeen amendments following the first ten in 1789; two-thirds of the House and Senate must pass amendments, and three-fourths of the states must approve them.
The nation’s states also have constitutions. Along with providing for legislative, executive, and judicial functions, state constitutions prescribe various rights of citizens. These rights may be different from, and in addition to, rights granted by the US Constitution. Like statutes and judicial decisions, a constitution’s specific provisions can provide people with a “cause of action” on which to base a lawsuit. For example, California’s constitution provides that the citizens of that state have a right of privacy. This has been used to assert claims against businesses that invade an employee’s right of privacy. In the case of Virginia Rulon-Miller, her employer, International Business Machines (IBM), told her to stop dating a former colleague who went to work for a competitor. When she refused, IBM terminated her, and a jury fined the company for $300,000 in damages. As the California court noted, “While an employee sacrifices some privacy rights when he enters the workplace, the employee’s privacy expectations must be balanced against the employer’s interests. [T]he point here is that privacy, like the other unalienable rights listed first in our Constitution. . . is unquestionably a fundamental interest of our society.”
2.4.2 Statutes and Treaties in Congress
In Washington, DC, the federal legislature is known as Congress and has both a House of Representatives and a Senate. The House is composed of representatives elected every two years from various districts in each state. These districts are established by Congress according to population as determined every ten years by the census, a process required by the Constitution. Each state has at least one district; the most populous state (California) has fifty-two districts. In the Senate, there are two senators from each state, regardless of the state’s population. Thus Delaware has two senators and California has two senators, even though California has far more people. Effectively, less than 20 percent of the nation’s population can send fifty senators to Washington.
Many consider this to be antidemocratic. The House of Representatives, on the other hand, is directly proportioned by population, though no state can have less than one representative.
Each Congressional legislative body has committees for various purposes. In these committees, proposed bills are discussed, hearings are sometimes held, and bills are either reported out (brought to the floor for a vote) or killed in committee. If a bill is reported out, it may be passed by majority vote. Because of the procedural differences between the House and the Senate, bills that have the same language when proposed in both houses are apt to be different after approval by each body. A conference committee will then be held to try to match the two versions. If the two versions differ widely enough, reconciliation of the two differing versions into one acceptable to both chambers (House and Senate) is more difficult.
If the House and Senate can agree on identical language, the reconciled bill will be sent to the president for signature or veto. The Constitution prescribes that the president will have veto power over any legislation. But the two bodies can override a presidential veto with a two-thirds vote in each chamber.
In the case of treaties, the Constitution specifies that only the Senate must ratify them. When the Senate ratifies a treaty, it becomes part of federal law, with the same weight and effect as a statute passed by the entire Congress. The statutes of Congress are collected in codified form in the US Code. The code is available online at http://uscode.house.gov.
2.4.3 Delegating Legislative Powers: Rules by Administrative Agencies
Congress has found it necessary and useful to create government agencies to administer various laws. The Constitution does not expressly provide for administrative agencies, but the US Supreme Court has upheld the delegation of power to create federal agencies.
Examples of administrative agencies would include the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
It is important to note that Congress does not have unlimited authority to delegate its lawmaking powers to an agency. It must delegate its authority with some guidelines for the agency and cannot altogether avoid its constitutional responsibilities.
Agencies propose rules in the Federal Register, published each working day of the year. Rules that are formally adopted are published in the Code of Federal Regulations, or CFR.
2.4.4 State Statutes and Agencies: Other Codified Law
Statutes are passed by legislatures and provide general rules for society. States have legislatures (sometimes called assemblies), which are usually made up of both a senate and a house of representatives. Like the federal government, state legislatures will agree on the provisions of a bill, which is then sent to the governor (acting like the president for that state) for signature. Like the president, governors often have a veto power. The process of creating and amending, or changing, laws is filled with political negotiation and compromise.
On a more local level, counties and municipal corporations or townships may be authorized under a state’s constitution to create or adopt ordinances. Examples of ordinances include local building codes, zoning laws, and misdemeanors or infractions such as skateboarding or jaywalking. Most of the more unusual laws that are in the news from time to time are local ordinances. For example, in Logan County, Colorado, it is illegal to kiss a sleeping woman; in Indianapolis, Indiana, and Eureka, Nebraska, it is a crime to kiss if you have a mustache. But reportedly, some states still have odd laws here and there. Kentucky law proclaims that every person in the state must take a bath at least once a year, and failure to do so is illegal.
2.4.5 Judicial Decisions: The Common Law
Common law consists of decisions by courts (judicial decisions) that do not involve interpretation of statutes, regulations, treaties, or the Constitution. Courts make such interpretations, but many cases are decided where there is no statutory or other codified law or regulation to be interpreted. For example, a state court deciding what kinds of witnesses are required for a valid will in the absence of a rule (from a statute) is making common law.
United States Law comes primarily from the tradition of English common law. By the time England’s American colonies revolted in 1776, English common-law traditions were well established in the colonial courts. English common law was a system that gave written judicial decisions the force of law throughout the country. Thus if an English court delivered an opinion as to what constituted the common-law crime of burglary, other courts would stick to that decision, so that a common body of law developed throughout the country. Common law is essentially shorthand for the notion that a common body of law, based on past written decisions, is desirable and necessary.In England and in the laws of the original thirteen states, common-law decisions defined crimes such as arson, burglary, homicide, and robbery. As time went on, US state legislatures either adopted or modified common-law definitions of most crimes by putting them in the form of codes or statutes. This legislative ability—to modify or change common law into judicial law—points to an important phenomenon: the priority of statutory law over common law. As we will see in the next section, constitutional law will have priority over statutory law.
2.4.6 Priority of Laws
126.96.36.199 The Constitution as Preemptive Force in US Law The US Constitution takes precedence over all statutes and judicial decisions that are inconsistent. For example, if Michigan were to decide legislatively that students cannot speak ill of professors in state-sponsored universities, that law would be void, since it is inconsistent with the state’s obligation under the First Amendment to protect free speech. Or if the Michigan courts were to allow a professor to bring a lawsuit against a student who had said something about him that was derogatory but not defamatory, the state’s judicial system would not be acting according to the First Amendment. (As we will see later, free speech has its limits; defamation was a cause of action at the time the First Amendment was added to the Constitution, and it has been understood that the free speech rights in the First Amendment did not negate existing common law.)
188.8.131.52 Statutes and Cases Statutes generally have priority, or take precedence, over case law (judicial decisions). Under common-law judicial decisions, employers could hire young children for difficult work, offer any wage they wanted, and not pay overtime work at a higher rate. But various statutes changed that. For example, the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (1938) forbid the use of oppressive child labor and established a minimum pay wage and overtime pay rules.
184.108.40.206 Treaties as Statutes: The “Last in Time” Rule A treaty or convention is considered of equal standing to a statute. Thus when Congress ratified the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), any judicial decisions or previous statutes that were inconsistent—such as quotas or limitations on imports from Mexico that were opposite to NAFTA commitments—would no longer be valid. Similarly, US treaty obligations under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and obligations made later through the World Trade Organization (WTO) would override previous federal or state statutes.
One example of treaty obligations overriding, or taking priority over, federal statutes was the tuna-dolphin dispute between the United States and Mexico. The Marine Mammal Protection Act amendments in 1988 spelled out certain protections for dolphins in the Eastern Tropical Pacific, and the United States began refusing to allow the importation of tuna that were caught using “dolphin-unfriendly” methods (such as purse seining). This was challenged at a GATT dispute panel in Switzerland, and the United States lost. The discussion continued at the WTO under its dispute resolution process. In short, US environmental statutes can be ruled contrary to US treaty obligations.
Under most treaties, the United States can withdraw, or take back, any voluntary limitation on its sovereignty; participation in treaties is entirely elective. That is, the United States may “unbind” itself whenever it chooses. But for practical purposes, some limitations on sovereignty may be good for the nation. The argument goes something like this: if free trade in general helps the United States, then it makes some sense to be part of a system that promotes free trade; and despite some temporary setbacks, the WTO decision process will (it is hoped) provide far more benefits than losses in the long run. This argument invokes utilitarian theory (that the best policy does the greatest good overall for society) and David Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage.
Ultimately, whether the United States remains a supporter of free trade and continues to participate as a leader in the WTO will depend upon citizens electing leaders who support the process. Had Ross Perot been elected in 1992, for example, NAFTA would have been politically (and legally) dead during his term of office.
2.4.7 Causes of Action, Precedent, and Stare Decisis
No matter how wrong someone’s actions may seem to you, the only wrongs you can right in a court are those that can be tied to one or more causes of action. The legal basis can be a Constitutional law, a statute, a regulation, or a prior judicial decision that creates a precedent to be followed. Positive law is full of cases, treaties, statutes, regulations, and constitutional provisions that can be made into a cause of action. If you have an agreement with Harold Hill that he will purchase seventy-six trombones from you and he fails to pay for them after you deliver, you will probably feel wronged, but a court will only act favorably on your complaint if you can show that his behavior gives you a cause of action based on some part of your state’s contract law. This case would give you a cause of action under the law of most states; unless Harold Hill had some legal excuse recognized by the applicable state’s contract law—such as his legal incompetence, his being less than eighteen years of age, his being drunk at the time the agreement was made, or his claim that the instruments were trumpets rather than trombones or that they were delivered too late to be of use to him—you could expect to recover some compensation for his breaching of your agreement with him.
An old saying in the law is that the law does not deal in trifles, or unimportant issues (in Latin, de minimis non curat lex). Not every wrong you may suffer in life will be a cause to bring a court action. If you are stood up for a Saturday night date and feel embarrassed or humiliated, you cannot recover anything in a court of law in the United States, as there is no cause of action (no basis in the positive law) that you can use in your complaint. If you are engaged to be married and your spouse-to-be bolts from the wedding ceremony, there are some states that do provide a legal basis on which to bring a lawsuit. “Breach of promise to marry” is recognized in several states, but most states have abolished this cause of action, either by judicial decision or by legislation. Whether a runaway bride or groom gives rise to a valid cause of action in the courts depends on whether the state courts still recognize and enforce this now-disappearing cause of action.
Your cause of action is thus based on existing laws, including decided cases. How closely your case “fits” with a prior decided case raises the question of precedent.
Generally speaking, to plausibly allege a cause of action, courts look to three elements: (1) did the plaintiff suffer a non-hypothetical, concrete injury? (2) Was it plausibly caused by the defendant? (3) Is the problem one a court has the capacity to redress? If each of these elements is present, the plaintiff has legal “standing” to sue. For example, if my neighbor’s house was robbed, it is my neighbor, not I, that has suffered an injury. I would not have standing to sue. Often businesses can get lawsuits dismissed by arguing that no real injury has occurred. For instance, if a plaintiff slipped and fell at your business with no obvious injury, but sought to recover the costs of future medical monitoring to ensure they had not been injured, one could argue they lack standing to sue. At the point an injury manifested, the plaintiff would have a stronger case.
Causes of action developed through hundreds of years of legal decisions building on each other. As noted earlier in this chapter, the English common-law tradition placed great emphasis on precedent and what is called stare decisis. A court considering one case would feel obliged to decide that case in a way similar to previously decided cases. Written decisions of the most important cases had been spread throughout England (the common “realm”), and judges hoped to establish a somewhat predictable, consistent group of decisions.
The English legislature (Parliament) was not in the practice of establishing detailed statutes on crimes, torts, contracts, or property. Thus definitions and rules were left primarily to the courts. By their nature, courts could only decide one case at a time, but in doing so they would articulate holdings, or general rules, that would apply to later cases.
Suppose that one court had to decide whether an employer could fire an employee for no reason at all. Suppose that there were no statutes that applied to the facts: there was no contract between the employer and the employee, but the employee had worked for the employer for many years, and now a younger person was replacing him. The court, with no past guidelines, would have to decide whether the employee had stated a “cause of action” against the employer. If the court decided that the case was not legally actionable, it would dismiss the action. Future courts would then treat similar cases in a similar way. In the process, the court might make a holding that employers could fire employees for any reason or for no reason. This rule could be applied in the future should similar cases come up.
But suppose that an employer fired an employee for not committing perjury (lying on the witness stand in a court proceeding); the employer wanted the employee to cover up the company’s criminal or unethical act. Suppose that, as in earlier cases, there were no applicable statutes and no contract of employment. Courts relying on a holding or precedent that “employers may fire employees for any reason or no reason” might rule against an employee seeking compensation for being fired for telling the truth on the witness stand. Or it might make an exception to the general rule, such as, “Employers may generally discharge employees for any reason or for no reason without incurring legal liability; however, employers will incur legal liability for firing an employee who refuses to lie on behalf of the employer in a court proceeding.”
In each case (the general rule and its exception), the common-law tradition calls for the court to explain the reasons for its ruling. In the case of the general rule, “freedom of choice” might be the major reason. In the case of the perjury exception, the efficiency of the judicial system and the requirements of citizenship might be used as reasons. Because the court’s “reasons” will be persuasive to some and not to others, there is inevitably a degree of subjectivity to judicial opinions. That is, reasonable people will disagree as to the persuasiveness of the reasoning a court may offer for its decision.
Written judicial opinions are thus a good playing field for developing critical thinking skills by identifying the issue in a case and examining the reasons for the court’s previous decision(s), or holding. What has the court actually decided, and why? Remember that a court, especially the US Supreme Court, is not only deciding one particular case but also setting down guidelines (in its holdings) for federal and state courts that encounter similar issues. Note that court cases often raise a variety of issues or questions to be resolved, and judges (and attorneys) will differ as to what the real issue in a case is. A holding is the court’s complete answer to an issue that is critical to deciding the case and thus gives guidance to the meaning of the case as a precedent for future cases.
Beyond the decision of the court, it is in looking at the court’s reasoning that you are most likely to understand what facts have been most significant to the court and what theories (schools of legal thought) each trial or appellate judge believes in. Because judges do not always agree on first principles (i.e., they subscribe to different schools of legal thought), there are many divided opinions in appellate opinions and in each US Supreme Court term.
There are different sources of law in the US legal system. The US Constitution is foundational; US statutory and common law cannot be inconsistent with its provisions. Congress creates statutory law (with the signature of the president), and courts will interpret constitutional law and statutory law. Where there is neither constitutional law nor statutory law, the courts function in the realm of common law. The same is true of law within the fifty states, each of which also has a constitution, or foundational law.
Both the federal government and the states have created administrative agencies. An agency only has the power that the legislature gives it. Within the scope of that power, an agency will often create regulations, which have the same force and effect as statutes. Treaties are never negotiated and concluded by states, as the federal government has exclusive authority over relations with other nation-states. A treaty, once ratified by the Senate, has the same force and effect as a statute passed by Congress and signed into law by the president.
Constitutions, statutes, regulations, treaties, and court decisions can provide a legal basis in the positive law. You may believe you have been wronged, but for you to have a right that is enforceable in court, you must have something in the positive law that you can point to that will support a cause of action against your chosen defendant.
2.5 Legal and Political Systems of the World
After reading this section, you should be able to do the following:
- Describe how the common-law system differs from the civil-law system.
- Describe what the term international law means, and what it doesn’t mean.
Other legal and political systems are very different from the US system, which came from English common-law traditions and the framers of the US Constitution. Our legal and political traditions are different both in what kinds of laws we make and honor and in how disputes are resolved in court.
2.5.1 Comparing Common-Law Systems with Other Legal Systems
The common-law tradition is unique to England, the United States, and former colonies of the British Empire. Although there are differences among common-law systems (e.g., most nations do not permit their judiciaries to declare legislative acts unconstitutional; some nations use the jury less frequently), all of them recognize the use of precedent in judicial cases, and none of them relies on the comprehensive, legislative codes that are prevalent in civil-law systems.
2.5.2 Civil-Law Systems
The main alternative to the common-law legal system was developed in Europe and is based in Roman and Napoleonic law. A civil-law or code-law system is one where all the legal rules are in one or more comprehensive legislative enactments. During Napoleon’s reign, a comprehensive book of laws—a code—was developed for all of France. The code covered criminal law, criminal procedure, noncriminal law and procedure, and commercial law. The rules of the code are still used today in France and in other continental European legal systems. The code is used to resolve particular cases, usually by judges without a jury. Moreover, the judges are not required to follow the decisions of other courts in similar cases. As George Cameron of the University of Michigan has noted, “The law is in the code, not in the cases.” He goes on to note, “Where several cases all have interpreted a provision in a particular way, the French courts may feel bound to reach the same result in future cases, under the doctrine of jurisprudence constante. The major agency for growth and change, however, is the legislature, not the courts.”
Civil-law systems are used throughout Europe as well as in Central and South America. Some nations in Asia and Africa have also adopted codes based on European civil law. Germany, Holland, Spain, France, and Portugal all had colonies outside of Europe, and many of these colonies adopted the legal practices that were imposed on them by colonial rule, much like the original thirteen states of the United States, which adopted English common-law practices.
One source of possible confusion at this point is that we have already referred to US civil law in contrast to criminal law. But the European civil law covers both civil and criminal law.
There are also legal systems that differ significantly from the common-law and civil-law systems. The communist and socialist legal systems that remain (e.g., in Cuba and North Korea) operate on very different assumptions than those of either English common law or European civil law. Islamic and other religion-based systems of law bring different values and assumptions to social and commercial relations.
2.5.3 International “Law”
The term “international law” is often used, which deserves mention in this context. In the sense of a sovereign making laws discussed above, there is no “international law”. No international sovereign musters an international police force to enforce a series of international statutes. There are broad principles, along natural law lines, that most nations and people agree to, and which nations or coalitions of nations may choose to use military power to enforce. This takes us more into the realm of geopolitics than law. In a looser sense, international law does exist through more informal means such as excluding nations from elements of international cooperation. In this sense, international principles or norms of conduct can be enforced. In this sense, international law is much like canon or church law, whose enforcement mechanism is excommunication from the body of believers. We devote a chapter to international law later in the text, but even there our focus will be on United States law applied in an international context, such as how United States courts treat decisions by courts of other countries, and whether a court in the United States should rule on a dispute that occurred outside the United States.
To give practice on the principles discussed in this chapter, we conclude with an example case that illustrates the law in practice.
Legal systems vary widely in their aims and in the way they process civil and criminal cases. Common-law systems use juries, have one judge, and adhere to precedent. Civil law systems decide cases without a jury, often use three judges, and often render shorter opinions without reference to previously decided cases.
- Black’s Law Dictionary, 6th ed., s.v. “law.” ↵
- The basic entities that comprise the international legal system. Countries, states, and nations are all roughly synonymous. State can also be used to designate the basic units of federally united states, such as in the United States of America, which is a nation-state. ↵
- A jurisprudence that focuses on the law as it is—the command of the sovereign. ↵
- A jurisprudence that emphasizes a law that transcends positive laws (human laws) and points to a set of principles that are universal in application. ↵
- Legislative directives, having the form of general rules that are to be followed in the nation-state or its subdivisions. Statutes are controlling over judicial decisions or common law, but are inferior to (and controlled by) constitutional law. ↵
- Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, s.v. “natural law.” ↵
- Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Image by Marion Trikosko, 1964, LOC. ↵
- Related to the CLS school, yet different, is the ecofeminist school of legal thought. This school emphasizes—and would modify—the long-standing domination of men over both women and the rest of the natural world. ↵
- A prior judicial decision that is either binding or persuasive, and as such, provides a rule useful in making a decision in the case at hand. ↵
- Latin, for “let the decision stand.” By keeping within the rule of a prior judicial decision, a court follows “precedent” by letting the prior decision govern the result in the case at hand. ↵
- In contrast to criminal law, the law that governs noncriminal disputes, such as in lawsuits (as opposed to prosecutions) over contract disputes and tort claims. In contrast to common law, civil law is part of the continental European tradition dating back to Roman law. ↵
- That body of law in any nation-state that defines offenses against society as a whole, punishable by fines, forfeitures, or imprisonment. ↵
- Formal agreements concluded between nation-states. ↵
- The founding documents of any nation-state’s legal system. ↵
- Rulon-Miller v. International Business Machines Corp., 162 Cal. App.3d 241, 255 (1984). ↵
- Judicial decisions that do not involve interpretation of statutes, regulations, treaties, or the Constitution. ↵
- In a complaint, a legal basis on which a claim is predicated. ↵
- For a good example of this, see the last exercise problem at the end of this section! ↵