What is a Law?
“Don’t run with scissors in your hand!”
“Don’t drive your car on the sidewalk!”
“Do not steal your neighbor’s property!”
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:
- Laws about food safety. At the state and local level, health departments have guidelines that restaurants follow for how to store and prepare food in a healthy manner, so that diners won’t get sick. At the national level, the Department of Agriculture and other federal agencies inspect food production plants to be sure that the food that shows up in your supermarket is safe to eat.
- Speed limits and traffic laws exist so that we drive in a safe manner.
- Licensing for doctors and nurses ensures proper training of the people who look after us, and who often have our lives in their hands.
We also have laws that protect our rights as citizens, and which include things like:
- Laws that come from the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution, that guarantee our basic freedoms like freedom of speech, religion, and the press.
- Laws that protect us from discrimination because of our race, gender, age, or because of a disability.
Where do Laws come from?In the United States, the Constitution is the ultimate source of the law. However, it was never designed to address every specific legal question. Within the boundaries of the Constitution, there are two primary sources of law, common law and statutory law.
- 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.
Laws Over TimeThe 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.
- For example, laws about bullying or stalking have had to be updated to consider social networking sites, cyber bullying and cyber stalking. The original laws didn’t take the internet into consideration.
More About LawsThe 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. Laws are sometimes controversial, and citizens do not always agree on what should be illegal. Though laws tend to come out of our shared values as a society, not everything that is immoral is illegal. For example: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:
- Foul Language may be offensive to some people, but it isn’t illegal.
- Narcotics are illegal in most cases, yet some people would like them to be legal for everyone, while others find them to be a threat to public safety and support current laws.
- Should a state be able to limit the sale of large, 40 ounce sodas in the name of supporting good health?
- Should teachers be able to use Facebook? Can they “friend” their students?
- Should a city be able to limit the number of fast food restaurants in a neighborhood, to try to make residents make healthier food choices?
- Should a municipality be able to tell you how “low” to wear your pants?
The Rule of Law
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."
Rule of Law 1The 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.
Rule of Law 2Faithfulness 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.
Rule of Law 3As 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.
Rule of Law 4The 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.
Rule of Law 5In 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.
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The law is important for a society for it serves as a norm of conduct for citizens. It was also made to provide for proper guidelines and order upon the behaviour for all citizens and to sustain the equity on the three branches of the government. It keeps the society running. Without law there would be chaos and it would be survival of the fittest and everyman for himself. Not an ideal lifestyle for most part.
The law is important because it acts as a guideline as to what is accepted in society. Without it there would be conflicts between social groups and communities. It is pivotal that we follow them. The law allows for easy adoption to changes that occur in the society.
Society is a ‘web-relationship’ and social change obviously means a change in the system of social relationship where a social relationship is understood in terms of social processes and social interactions and social organizations. Thus, the term, ‘social change’ is used to indicate desirable variations in social institution, social processes and social organization. It includes alterations in the structure and functions of the society. Closer analysis of the role of law vis-à-vis social change leads us to distinguish between the direct and the indirect aspects of the role of law.
1. Law plays an important indirect role in regard to social change by shaping a direct impact on society. For example: A law setting up a compulsory educational system.
2. On the other hand, law interacts in many cases indirectly with basic social institutions in a manner constituting a direct relationship between law and social change. For example, a law designed to prohibit polygamy.
Law plays an agent of modernization and social change. It is also an indicator of the nature of societal complexity and its attendant problems of integration. Further, the reinforcement of our belief in the age-old panchayat system, the abolition of the abhorable practices of untouchability, child marriage, sati, dowry etc are typical illustrations of social change being brought about in the country trough laws.
Law is an effective medium or agency, instrumental in bringing about social change in the country or in any region in particular. Therefore, we rejuvenate our belief that law has been pivotal in introducing changes in the societal structure and relationships and continues to be so.
Law certainly has acted as a catalyst in the process of social transformation of people wherein the dilution of caste inequalities, protective measures for the weak and vulnerable sections, providing for the dignified existence of those living under unwholesome conditions etc. are the illustrious examples in this regard. Social change involves an alteration of society; its economic structure, values and beliefs, and its economic, political and social dimensions also undergo modification. However, social change does not affect all aspects of society in the same manner.
While much of social change is brought about by material changes such as technology, new patterns of production, etc., other conditions are also necessary. For example, as we have discussed it before, legal prohibition of untouchability in free India has not succeeded because of inadequate social support.
Nonetheless, when law cannot bring about change without social support, it still can create certain preconditions for social change. Moreover, after independence, the Constitution of India provided far-reaching guidelines for change. Its directive principle suggested a blueprint for a new nation. The de-recognition of the caste system, equality before the law and equal opportunities for all in economic, political and social spheres were some of the high points of the Indian Constitution.
The Relationship between Law and Society
Theorists have traditionally maintained that there are certain broad views on the substantive criminal law. One set of such constraints concerns the sorts of behaviour that may legitimately be prohibited. Is it proper, for example, to criminalize a certain kind of action on the grounds that most people in one’s society regard it as immoral? The other set of constraints which concerns what is needed in order to establish criminal responsibility that is liability, independently of the content of the particular statute whose violation is in question.
Legal system reflects all the energy of life within in any society. Law has the complex vitality of a living organism. We can say that law is a social science characterized by movement and adaptation. Rules are neither created nor applied in a vacuum, on the other hand they created and used time and again for a purpose. Rules are intended to move us in a certain direction that we assume is good, or prohibit movement in direction that we believe is bad.
The social rules are made by the members of the society. Disobedience of the social rules is followed by punishment of social disapproval. There is no positive penalty associated with the violation of rules except excommunication or ostracism. On the other hand, law is enforced by the state. The objective of law is to bring order in the society so the members of society can progress and develop with some sort of security regarding the future. The state makes laws. Disobedience of state laws invites penalty, which is enforced by the government by the power of the state. What is not enforceable is not Law.
Law is a system of rules and guidelines which are enforced through social institutions to govern behaviour, wherever possible. It shapes politics, economics and society in numerous ways and serves as a social mediator of relations between people.
If the harm is criminalized in legislation, criminal law offers means by which the state can prosecute the perpetrator. Constitutional law provides a framework for the creation of law, the protection of human rights and the election of political representatives.
Administrative law is used to review the decisions of government agencies, while international law governs affairs between sovereign states in activities ranging from trade to environmental regulation or military action. The legal response to a given social or technological problem is therefore in itself a major social action which may aggravate a given problem or alleviate and help to solve it.