American law comes from many sources. Though our law is primarily based on English law, other legal systems (such as French and Spanish civil law) have influenced the development of American law. The primary sources of law in this country are the U.S. Constitution, state constitutions, federal and state statutes, local ordinances, administrative agency rules and regulations, executive orders, and judicial decisions made in state and federal courts.
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There are 51 Constitutions in the United States--one for each state, and the United States Constitution. The United States Constitution (which is always capitalized) is the supreme law of the United States. Any law that conflicts with the U.S. Constitution is unconstitutional, and therefore unenforceable. The principles in the Constitution are very broad because our founding fathers knew that this country would grow and evolve as a society. The Constitution is referred to as a living document because it has stood the test of time and is as relevant today as it was at its inception. The founding fathers also intended that the Constitution be amendable. If a provision is to be modified, the new version must be ratified by 2/3 of the states in the nation. Our governmental structure and its checks and balances were set into place by the U.S. Constitution. We have the legislative branch (Congress), the executive branch (the President), and the judicial branch (the courts) of government. Each has its own primary responsibilities. The legislative branch makes laws. The judicial branch interprets the laws, and the executive branch enforces the laws. Anything not specifically named as a federal government function in the U.S. Constitution is reserved to the states. When nations enter into agreements, the agreement is called a treaty. The President is allowed to enter into a treaty with the advice and consent of the Senate. A treaty becomes part of the supreme law of the land.
History of the Constitution
The Declaration of Independence
The Constitution of the U.S.
Statutes are written laws enacted by federal and state legislative bodies. When they are enacted, they are organized by topic into code books, and are called codified law. You will work with various Codes in the your program of study, particularly the federal Code and your own state Code. Local governments also have the ability to make law. The laws made by these local entities are called ordinances.
How Laws are Enacted
Senate Contrasted with the House
The executive branch of the government has the responsibility of enforcing the law. Because we are such a large country and there are so many areas of the law to enforce, the legislative and executive branches of the government create administrative agencies to assist. An agency is created either by statute (called an enabling statute passed by the legislature) or by executive order (an order by the President of the United States). The agency is given the power to make rules and regulations to help govern its procedures and to interpret the statutes that the agency was created to enforce. Administrative agencies have the power to hear and decide disputes. The decisions made by the agency are called orders.
What is an Administrative Agency?
Powers and Functions of Administrative Agencies PowerPoint
When a case goes to court, a judge (possibly with the assistance of a jury) will make a decision about the outcome of the case. When a judge writes an opinion, he or she explains the reasons for the decision and often includes interpretations of the law used to make the decision. These written opinions are published in books (and online) called reporters. Decisions made by judges serve as precedent for subsequent cases. In other words, cases that come after the decision and that are similar in fact pattern, will be decided in a similar way. This doctrine is called stare decisis, which is Latin for to stand by the decision.