How many times a day does someone tell you what to do? How often do you have to stop yourself from doing what you want, because you know that this action is prohibited or wrong?
In the United States, it seems like we have laws, rules, and regulations to oversee just about everything. We don’t always like these rules, since they often mean that someone is telling us what to do, or keeping us from doing what we want. Yet to live in a civil society, we must have some rules to follow.
Who gets to make these rules? Where do they come from? What happens when we break them? These are the questions this page will seek to answer for you.
aws are rules that bind all people living in a community. Laws protect our general safety, and ensure our rights as citizens against abuses by other people, by organizations, and by the government itself. We have laws to help provide for our general safety. These exist at the local, state and national levels, and include things like:
We also have laws that protect our rights as citizens, and which include things like:
This law comes from the judicial branch. Though the courts do not pass laws, they do interpret them. This means that the judiciary bases their legal decisions on what is written in the Constitution, and on previous court rulings in similar cases. This is a process called stare decisis which in Latin means “let the decision stand.”
Statutes are laws created by the legislative branch through the lawmaking process. Statutes are written, discussed, argued and voted on in Congress or in the legislature of a state. The courts then apply and interpret these statutes on a case by case basis.
The thing about living in a democracy is that the laws change over time. The laws needed in 1789 when the Constitution was born, and in 1890, 1950, or 1990, are different from the laws needed today. The legislative branch of government must seek to update laws as needed, and the judicial branch has to interpret the laws so that they apply fairly to society at the time.
The laws of our nation generally arise out of our shared values and morals. In our nation we have laws at both the national and state levels. As citizens, we tend to be most familiar with state and local laws, since these are the laws we encounter most in our daily lives. These laws protect us against crimes like murder, robbery, rape, and assault. They also insure that we don’t drive too fast, that we mow our lawns and keep our dogs on leashes. In the United States, we also have a national government which makes laws. On the national level, we have laws about internet crime, narcotics, treason, as well as things like copyright and patents.
Recently we have seen state and local governments making some laws that may cause us to question the limits of government’s power. For example:
President Theodore Roosevelt once said, "Ours is a government of liberty, by, through and under the law. No man is above it, and no man is below it."
The American commitment to the rule of law means that every citizen is governed by the same laws, applied through a fair and equal judicial process to resolve disputes peacefully.
Faithfulness to the rule of law allows us to live in a civil society in which everyone’s rights are respected; where each of us is guaranteed liberty and equality of opportunity.
As citizens we respect the laws because they are clearly communicated and fairly enforced. Everyone is held accountable to the same laws, and those laws protect our fundamental rights. This is the foundation of the rule of law in the United States.
The words “Equal Justice Under Law” are engraved on the front of the United States Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C… These words embody the ideal of the RULE OF LAW, which is at the heart of our American democracy.
In the United States, we have written laws in place to help us settle disagreements peacefully through a fair system of justice. It is the job of the courts to interpret the laws. It is up to judges and juries to decide if we have indeed broken the law.
You wait for the walk signal at the crosswalk. As you step into the street a car speeds through the red light and nearly runs you over. A policeman nearby ignores the situation.
The police seize your personal belongings. They give you no warning and no explanation. When you tell the local judge, she orders you to keep quiet.
Murder is against the law, yet the police refuse to arrest a powerful government official who shoots and kills his neighbor in front of several eye-witnesses.
Your neighbor is accused of a crime. She has an attorney who will represent her at a trial. A jury of her peers will make the final decision. The entire trial is open to the public.
You have to go to civil court because a customer slipped in your store. The judge rules against you because the judge and the customer are cousins.