A body of rules of conduct of binding legal force and effect, prescribed, recognized, and enforced by controlling authority.
In U.S. law, the word law refers to any rule that if broken subjects a party to criminal punishment or civil liability. Laws in the United States are made by federal, state, and local legislatures, judges, the president, state governors, and administrative agencies.
Law in the United States is a mosaic of statutes, treaties, case law, Administrative Agency regulations, executive orders, and local laws. U.S. law can be bewildering because the laws of the various jurisdictions—federal, state, and local—are sometimes in conflict. Moreover, U.S. law is not static. New laws are regularly introduced, old laws are repealed, and existing laws are modified, so the precise definition of a particular law may be different in the future from what it is today.
Statutes and Treaties
After the federal Constitution, the highest laws are written laws, or statutes, passed by elected federal lawmakers. States have their own constitution and statutes.
Federal laws generally involve matters that concern the entire country. State laws generally do not reach beyond the borders of the state. Under Article VI, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution, federal laws have supremacy over state and local laws. This means that when a state or local law conflicts with a federal law, the federal law prevails.
Federal statutes are passed by Congress and signed into law by the president. State statutes are passed by state legislatures and approved by the governor. If a president or governor vetoes, or rejects, a proposed law, the legislature may override the Veto if at least two-thirds of the members of each house of the legislature vote for the law.
Statutes are the primary source of law, and the power to enact statutes is reserved to elected lawmakers. However, judicial decisions also have the force of law. Statutes do not cover every conceivable case, and even when a statute does control a case, the courts may need to interpret it. Judicial decisions are known collectively as case law. A judicial decision legally binds the parties in the case, and also may serve as a law in the same prospective sense as does a statute. In other words, a judicial decision determines the outcome of the particular case, and also may regulate future conduct of all persons within the jurisdiction of the court.
Courts of law are a fundamental part of the U.S. judicial system. The U.S. Constitution and all state constitutions recognize a judicial branch of government that is charged with adjudicating disputes. Beginning in the 1990s, vigilante organizations challenged the judicial system by establishing their own so-called common-law courts. By 1996 these common-law courts existed in more than 30 states. Though they have no legitimate power, being created without either constitutional or statutory authority, and in fact sometimes contravene established law.
Agency Regulations and Executive Orders
Administrative agencies may also create laws. The federal and state constitutions implicitly give the legislatures the power to create administrative agencies. Administrative agencies are necessary because lawmakers often lack detailed knowledge about important issues, and they need experts to manage the regulation of complex subjects. On the federal level, for example, the Department of the Interior was created by Congress to manage the nation’s natural resources. In creating the agency, Congress gave it power to promulgate regulations concerning the use and protection of natural resources.
Counties, cities, and towns also have the authority to make laws. Local laws are issued by elected lawmakers and local administrative agencies. Local laws cannot conflict with state or federal laws. Decisions by local courts generally operate as law insofar as they apply to the participants in the case. To a lesser extent, local court decisions may have a prospective effect. That is, a local court decision can operate as precedent, but only in cases brought within the same jurisdiction. For example, a court decision argued by an attorney in Springfield, Missouri may affect future court cases in Greene County, but it has no bearing on the law in any other county. Local laws can be found in local courthouses, in local libraries, and in state government libraries. Local laws may also be accessed via the World Wide Web.