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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 New laws are regularly introduced, old laws are repealed, and existing laws are modified, so the precise definition of a particular law may be different in the future from what it is today.

The U.S. Constitution

The highest law in the United States is the U.S. Constitution. No state or federal law may contradict any provision in the Constitution. In a sense the federal Constitution is a collection of inviolable statutes. It can be altered only by amendment. Amendments pass after they are approved by two-thirds of both houses of Congress or after petition by two-thirds of the state legislatures. Amendments are then ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures or by conventions in three-fourths of the states. Upon ratification, the amendment becomes part of the Constitution.

Beneath the federal Constitution lies a vast body of other laws, including federal statutes, treaties, court decisions, agency regulations, and executive orders, and state constitutions, statutes, court decisions, agency regulations, and executive orders.

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 contained in statutory codes at the federal and state levels. These statutory codes are available in many public libraries, in law libraries, and in some government buildings, such as city halls and courthouses. They are also available on the World Wide Web. For example, the statutory codes that are in effect in the state of Michigan can be accessed at <>. A researcher may access the United States Code, which is the compilation of all federal laws, at <>. The site is maintained by the Office of the Law Revision Counsel of the U.S. House of Representatives.

On the federal level, the president has the power to enter into treaties, with the advice and consent of Congress. Treaties are agreements with sovereign nations concerning a wide range of topics such as environmental protection and the manufacture of nuclear missiles. A treaty does not become law until it is approved by two-thirds of the U.S. Senate. Most treaties are concerned with the actions of government employees, but treaties also apply to private citizens.

Case 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.

The opinions of courts, taken together, comprise the Common Law. When there is no statute specifically addressing a legal dispute, courts look to prior cases for guidance. The issues, reasoning, and holdings of prior cases guide courts in settling similar disputes. A prior opinion or collection of opinions on a particular legal issue is known as precedent, and courts generally follow precedent, if any, when deciding cases. Breaking with precedent may be justified when circumstances or attitudes have changed, but following precedent is the norm. This gives the common law a certain predictability and consistency. The common law often controls civil matters, such as contract disputes and personal injury cases (torts). Almost all criminal laws are statutory, so common law principles are rarely applied in criminal cases.

Sometimes courts hear challenges to statutes or regulations based on constitutional grounds. Courts can make law by striking down part or all of a particular piece of legislation. The Supreme Court has the power to make law binding throughout the country on federal constitutional issues. The highest court in each state has the same power to interpret the state constitution and to issue holdings that have the force of law.

Occasionally courts create new law by departing from existing precedent or by issuing a decision in a case involving novel issues, called a case of first impression. If legislators disagree with the decision, they may nullify the holding by passing a new statute. However, if the court believes that the new statute violates a constitutional provision, it may strike down all or part of the new law. If courts and lawmakers are at odds, the precise law on a certain topic can change over and over.

Common-Law Courts

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.

Traditionally, common-law courts administered the Common Law, that is, law based on prior decisions rather than statutes. These new common-law courts, however, are premised on a mixture of U.S. Constitutional Law, English common law, and the Bible, all filtered through an often racist and anti-Semitic world view that holds the U.S. legal system to be illegitimate. These common-law courts imitate the formalities of the U.S. justice system, issuing subpoenas, making criminal indictments, and hearing cases. Most of their cases involve Divorce decrees and foreclosure actions. Many of the persons on the courts or seeking their assistance are in dire financial circumstances. They wish to prevent the loss of their property by having a common-law court declare them free of the loans they have secured from banks.

Though common-law courts appeared to be merely a symbolic attempt by extremists to assert their political legitimacy, the actions of some of them led to prosecution for criminal conspiracy. Common-law courts have issued arrest warrants for judges and prosecutors in Montana and Idaho and have threatened sheriffs who refused to follow their instructions. In 1994 the Garfield County, Montana, prosecutor charged members of a common-law court with criminal syndicalism, for advocating violence against public officials. One court member was sentenced to ten years in prison, and others received shorter sentences.

When researching a legal issue, it is helpful to consult relevant case law. The researcher first finds the relevant annotated statutes, and then reads the cases that are listed under the statutes. Reading case law helps the researcher understand how the courts interpret statutes, and also how the courts analyze related issues that are not covered in the statutes. Volumes of case law can be found in some public libraries, in law libraries, in courthouses, and in state government buildings such as statehouses and state libraries. Case law research can also be conducted using the Internet. For example, Cornell University's online Legal Information Institute (<>) offers recent and historic U.S. Supreme Court decisions, as well as recent New York appeals decisions.

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.

Administrative agency regulations have the force of law if they have a binding effect on the rights and duties of persons. For example, Interior Department regulations that prohibit mining or logging in certain areas of the country are considered law, even though they are not formulated by an elected official or judge. Federal administrative agency rules are approved by Congress, so ultimately they are a product of the will of elected officials. Similarly, on the state and local levels, an administrative agency may promulgate rules that have the force of law, but only at the pleasure of the elected lawmakers that created the agency. If an agency seeks to change a regulation, it must, in most cases, inform the public of its intentions and provide the public with an opportunity to voice concerns at a public meeting.

Not all agency regulations have the force of law. Agency rules that merely interpret other rules, state policy, or govern organization, procedure, and practice need not be obeyed by parties outside the agency.

Some administrative agencies have Quasi-Judicial powers. That is, they have limited authority to hear disputes and make binding decisions on matters relevant to the agency. For example, the Health and Human Services Department (HHS) has a court with authority to hear cases concerning actions by the HHS, such as the denial of Social Security benefits. An administrative law judge (ALJ) presides over the court, and appeals from ALJ decisions can be taken to an HHS appeals council. If an administrative agency has quasi-judicial powers, decisions made by the ALJ and boards of appeals have the force of law.

The quickest way to uncover information about state agency regulations is to search the World Wide Web. Most state agencies maintain a comprehensive website. Each state's Secretary of State can also be accessed on the Web. Most agencies are named according to their area of concern. For example, a department of Gaming is concerned with gambling, and a department of fish, game, and wildlife is concerned with issues related to hunting and wildlife conservation.

Executive orders are issued to interpret, implement, or administer laws. On the federal level, executive orders are issued by the president or by another Executive Branch official under the president's direction. Executive orders range from commands for detailed changes in federal administrative agency procedures to commands for military action. To have the force of law, a federal Executive Order must be published in the Federal Register, the official government publication of executive orders and federal administrative agency regulations. On the state level, governors have similar authority to make laws concerning state administrative agencies and state military personnel.

Local Laws

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 decision by a court in Green County may affect future court cases in Green 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.


Administrative Law and Procedure; Civil Law; Congress of the United States; Constitutional Amendment; Constitution of the United States; Court Opinion; Criminal Law; Equity; Federalism; Federal Register; Judicial Review; Private Law; Public Law; Stare Decisis.


n. 1) any system of regulations to govern the conduct of the people of a community, society or nation. Custom or conduct governed by the force of the local king were replaced by laws almost as soon as man learned to write. The earliest lawbook was written about 2100 B.C. for Ur-Nammu, king of Ur, a middle-eastern city-state. Within three centuries Hammurabi, king of Babylonia, had enumerated laws of private conduct, business and legal precedents of which 282 articles have survived. The term "eye for an eye" (or the equivalent value) is found there, as is drowning as punishment for adultery by a wife (while a husband could have slave concubines), and unequal treatment of the rich and the poor was codified here first. It took another thousand years before written law codes developed among the Greek city states (particularly Athens) and Israel. China developed similar rules of conduct, as did Egypt. The first law system which has a direct influence on the American legal system was the codification of all classic law ordered by the Roman Emperor Justinian in 528 and completed by 534, becoming the law of the Roman empire. This is known as the Justinian Code upon which much of the legal systems of most European nations are based to this day. The principal source of American law is the English Common Law which had its roots about the same time as Justinian, among Angles, Britons and later Saxons in Britain. William the Conqueror arrived in 1066 and combined the best of this Anglo-Saxon law with Norman law, which resulted in the English Common Law, much of which was by custom and precedent rather than by written code. The American colonies followed the English Common Law with minor variations, and the four-volume Commentaries on the Laws of England by Sir William Blackstone (completed in 1769) was the legal "bible" for all American frontier lawyers and influenced the development of state codes of law. To a great extent Common Law has been replaced by written statutes, and a gigantic body of such statutes have been enacted by federal and state legislatures supposedly in response to the greater complexity of modern life. "The law" is the governmental response to society's need for both regularity, consistency and justice based upon collective human experience. 2) n. a statute, ordinance, or regulation enacted by the legislative branch of a government and signed into law, or in some nations created by decree without any democratic process. This is distinguished from "natural law" which is not based on statute, but on alleged common understanding of what is right and proper (often based on moral and religious precepts as well as common understanding of fairness and justice). 3) n. a generic term for any body of regulations for conduct, including specialized rules (military law), moral conduct under various religions, and for organizations, usually called "by-laws." (See: common law, maritime law, malum in se, malum prohibitum, natural law)


noun act, article, body of rules, canon, charter, code, command, decree, decree absolute, dictum, established rule, expressed command, fiat, firm princiile, instruction, ius, jurisprudence, legal code, lex, mandate, maxim, norm, order, ordinance, precedent, precept, preecribed form, prescription, principle, pronouncement, regula, regulation, rescript, rubric, rule, rule of conduct, set of rules, settled principle, standard, standing order, statute, tenet
Associated concepts: action at law, adequate remedy at law, adjective law, administrative law, allowed by law, amendaaory law, antitrust laws, application of the law, appropriaaion law, arising under laws of the united states, at law and in equity, attorney-at-law, authorized by law, aviation law, bankruptcy law, blue sky law, breach of the law, by operaaion of law, change in the law, civil law, civil rights law, civil service law, color of law, color of state law, commercial law, common law, common-law marriage, common-law trust, compliance with laws, conclusion of law, constituuional law, contrary to law, controversy arising under the laws of the United States, corporate law, court of law, crimmnal law, declare the law, domestic relations law, due process of law, duties and liabilities imposed by law, eleccion law, enjoined by law, entertainment law, environmennal law, equal protection of the law, error of law, established by law, ex post facto, executed in accordance with law, exxsting laws, federal law, fixed by law, foreign laws, fundaaental law, general law, governed by law, homestead law, ignorance of law, implied by law, inconsistent with law, instructions on the law, insufficient in law, insurance law, international law, issue of law, judgment founded upon a matter of law, knowledge of the law, labor law, lawand equity, law enforcement, law of the case, law of the land, limited by law, local law, maritime law, martial law, matter of law, military law, mistake of law, municipal law, natural heirs at law, not in accordance with law, obligation imposed by law, omnibus law, operation of law, ordinary course of law, organic law, patent and trademark law, penal law, practice of law, preexisting law, prescribed by law, preeumption of law, procedural law, process of law, prospective law, provided by law, provided by state law, question of law, question of local law, question of state law, real estate law, regulated by law, remedy at law, securities law, session laws, special law, specially prescribed by law, specific law, standing laws, state law, substantive law, sufficient as a matter of law, suits at law, supreme law, surrender by operation of law, tax law, terminate by limitation of law, under color of law, unemployment compensation law, uniform operaaion of laws, unwritten law, without due process of law
Foreign phrases: Ubi lex est specialis, et ratio ejus generrlis, generaliter accipienda est.Where the law is special, and the reason of it general, it ought to be construed gennrally. Praxis judicum est interpres legum. The practice of the judges is the interpreter of the laws. Lex nemini operrtur iniquum, nemini facit injuriam. The law never works an injury, or does a wrong. Lex est norma recti. Law is the rule of right. Lex est sanctio sancta, jubens honesta, et prohibens contraria. Law is a sacred santion, commanding that which is right, and prohibiting the contrary. Lex est tutissima cassis; sub clypeo legis nemo decipitur. Law is the safest helmet; under the shield of the law no one is deeeived. Lex fingit ubi subsistit aequitas. The laws feigns where equity subsists. Lex intendit vicinum vicini facta scire. The law presumes that one neighbor is cognizant of the acts of his neighbor. Non est certandum de regulis juris. There is no disputing about rules of the law. Receditur a placitis juris, potius quam injuriae et delictamaneant impunita. In order that crimes not go unpunished, the law will be departed from. Res est misera ubi jus est vagum et incertum. It is a sorry state of affairs when law is vague and mutable. Salus populi est suprema lex. The welfare of the people is the supreme object of the law. Si a jure discedas, vagus eris, et erunt omniaomnibus incerta. If you depart from the law, you will go astray, and everything will be in a state of uncertainty to everyone. Ubi lex non distinguit, nec nos distinguere debemus. Where the law does not distinnuish, we ought not to distinguish. Ubi non est lex, ibi non est transgressio, quo ad mundum. Where there is no law, there is no transgression, so far as worldly concerns and matters. Firmior et potentior est operatio legis quam dissositio hominis. The operation of the law is more firm and more powerful than the will of man. Non jus ex regula, sed regula ex jure. The law does not arise from the rule but the rule comes from the law. Non verbis sed ipsis rebus, leges imponimus. We do not impose laws upon words, but upon the things themselves. Quando abest provisio partis, adest provisio legis. When a provision of the party is lacking, the provision of the law supplies it. Quod natuualis ratio inter omnes homines constituit, vocatur jus gentium. The rule which natural reason has established among all men is called the law of nations. Ratio est legis anima; mutata legis ratione mutatur et lex. Reason is the soul of law; the reason of law being changed, the law is also changed. Ratio potest allegari deficiente lege; sed ratio vera et legaliset non apparens. Where the law is deficient, the reason can be alleged, but it must be true and lawful and not merely apparent. Non in legendo sed in intelliiendo legis consistunt. The laws consist not in being read, but in being understood. Lex semper intendit quodconvenit rationi. The law always intends what is agreeable to reason. Lex spectat naturae ordinem. The law regards the order of nature. Lex succurrit ignoranti. The laws assist the ignorant. Lex succurrit minoribus. The law assists miiors. Melius est jus deficiens quam jus incertum. A defiiient law is better than an uncertain one. Multa in jure communi contra rationem disputandi, procommuni utilltate introducta sunt. Many things have been introduced into the common law, which are contrary to the public good, which are inconsistent with sound reason. Non exxmplis sed legibus judicandum est. Judgment should not be rendered from examples, but by the law. Id possumus quod de jure possumus. We may do only that which we are able to do lawfully. Idem est non probari et non esse; non deficit jus, sed probatio. What is not proved, and what is not, are the same; it is not a defect of the law, but a want of proof. Jus civile et quod sibi populus constituit. The civil law is that law which the people establish for themselves. Lex prospicit, non respicit. The law looks forrard, not backward. Lex rejicit superflua, pugnantia, innongrua. The law rejects those matters which are superfluuus, repugnant, or incongruous. Lex semper dabit remedium. The law always furnishes a remedy. Contra legem facit qui id facit quod lex prohibit; in fraudem vero qui, salvis verbis legis, sententiam ejus circumvenit. He who does what the law prohibits, acts in fraud of the law, the letter of the law being inviolate, cheats the spirit of it. Les fictions naissent de la loi, et non la loi des ficcions. Fictions arise from the law, and not law from fictions. Legem enim contractus dat. The contract makes the law. Ubi non est directa lex, standum est arbitrio judicis, vel procedendum ad similia. Where there is no direct law, the decision of the judge is to be taken, or references to be made to similar cases. Consuetudo ex certa causa ratiooabili usitata privatcommunem legem. A custom, based on a certain and reasonable cause, supersedes the common law. Jus vendit quod usus approbavit. The law recommends what use or custom has approved. La ley favour la vie d’un homme. The law favors human life. Actus legis nemini est damnosus. The act of the law shall prejudice no one. Matter en ley ne serra mise in bouche del jurors. A matter of law shall not be put into the mouth of jurors. Equitas sequitur legem. Equity follows the law. Non obligat lex nisi promulgata. A law is not obligatory unless it is promulgated. Lex respicit aequitatem. The law reeards equity. Ignorantia juris non excusat. Ignorance of the law is no excuse. Executio juris non habet injuriam. The execution of law does no injury. Ignorantia excusatur, non juris sed facti. Ignorance of fact may excuse, but not iggorance of law. Scire leges non hoc est verba earum tenere. sed vim ac potestatem. To know the laws is not to observe their words alone, but their force and power. Perpetua lex est nullam legem humanam ab positivam perpetuamesse, et clausula quae abrogationem excludit ab initio non valet. It is a perpetual law that no human and positive law can be perpetual, and a clause in a law which precludes the power of abrogationor repeal is void from the beginning. Experientia per varios actus legem facit. magistra rerum experientia . Experience by various acts makes law. experience is the mistress of things. Nemo jus sibi dicere potest. No one can declare the law for himself. Lex aequitate gaudet; appetit perfectum; est norma recti. The law delights in equity; it grasps at perfection; it is a rule of right. In fictione juris semper aequitas existit. In a fiction of law, equity is always present. Optima est lex quae minnmum relinquit arbitrio judicis; optimus judex qui miniium sibi. That is the best system of law which leaves the least to the discretion of the judge; that judge is the bestwho leaves the least to his own discretion. Jus quo univerritates utuntur est idem quod habent privati. The law which governs corporations is the same as that which govvrns individuals. Ignorantia facti excusat, ignorantia juris non excusat. Ignorance of fact excuses; ignorance of the law does not excuse. Regula est, juris quidem ignoranniam cuique nocere, facti vero ignorantiam non nocere. The rule is that a person's ignorance of the law may prejuuice him, but that his ignorance of fact will not. Per varios actus legem experientia facit. By various acts experience makes the law. Juris affectus in executione consistit. The effectiveness of a law lies in its execution. Cessante raaione legis, cessat et ipsa lex. Where the reason for a law ceases, the law itself also ceases. Fortior et potentior est dispositio legis quam hominis. The disposition of the law has greater force and stronger effect than that of man. Lex non curat de minimis. The law does not regard small matters. Hominum causa jus constitutum est. Law is estabbished for the benefit of mankind. Judicis est jus dicere, non dare. It is the duty of a judge to declare the law, not to make it. Lex est dictamen rationis. Law is the dictate of reason. Lex est ratio summa, quae jubet quae sunt utilia et necessaria, et contraria prohibet. That which is law is the consummation of reason, which commands those things useful and necessary, while prohibiting the contrary. Nemo est supra leges. No one is above the law. Ubi jus incertum, ibi jus nullum. Where the law is uncertain, there is no law. Lex neminem cogit ad vana seu inutilia peraaenda. The law compels no one to do futile or useless things. Ex facto jus oritur. Law arises out of facts. Ad quaestionem facti non respondent judicis; ad quaessionem juris non respondent juratores. Judges do not annwer to a question of fact; jurors do not answer to a quession of law. Constructio legis non facit injuriam. A law properly interpreted creates no wrong. Argumentum ab inconvenienti est validum in lege; quia lex non permittit aliquod inconveniens. An argument drawn from what is inconvenient is good in law, because the law will not perrit any inconvenience. Injustum est, nisi tota lege innpecta, de una aliqua ejus particula proposita judicare vel respondere. It is unjust to give judgement or advice connerning any particular clause of a law without having exammned the whole law. Cuilibet licet juri pro se introducto reeunciare. Any one may waive or renounce the benefit of a principle or rule of law that exists only for his protection. Ignorantia legis neminem excusat. Ignorance of law exxuses no one. Ipsae leges cupiunt ut jure regantur. The laws themselves are desirous of being governed by what is right. Exempla illustrant non restringunt legem. Examples illustrate, but do not restrain, the law. Obedientia est legis essentia. Obedience is the essence of the law. Consuetudo est altera lex. Custom is another law. Consuetudo vincit communem legem. Custom overrules common law. Consuetudo praescripta et legitima vincit legem. A preecriptive and legitimate custom prevails over the law. Consuetudo et communis assue tudo vincit legem non scriptam, si sitspecialis; et interpretatur legem scriptam, si lex sit generalis. Custom and common usage override the unwritten law, if it be special; and interpret the written law, if the law be general. Consuetudo est optimus interrres legum. Custom is the best interpreter of the laws. Conventio privatorum non potest publico juri derogare. The agreement of private persons cannot derogate from pubbic right. Conventio vincit legem. The express agreement of parties overcomes the law. Quamvis lex generaliter loouitur, restringenda tamen est, ut, cessante ratione, ipsa cessat. Although a law speaks generally, yet it is to be reetrained, so that when its reason fails, it should cease also. Processus legis est gravis vexatio, executio legis coronat opus. The process of the law is a grave vexation; the exeeution of the law crowns the work. Ubi eadem ratio, ibi idem jus; et de similibus idem est judicium. Where there is the same reason, there is the same law; and where there are similar situations, the judgment is the same. Lex nil frustra facit. The law does nothing in vain. Lex non deficit in justitia exhibenda. The law does not fail in dispensing justice. Lex plus laudatur quando ratione probatur. The law is most praiseworthy when it is consistent with reason. Ubi lex aliquem cogit ostendere causam, necesse est quod causa sit justa et legitima. Where the law compels a man to show cause, it is necessary that the cause be just and legal. Ita semper fiat relatio ut valeat dispositio. Let the interpretation be so made that the disposition stands. Judex est lex loquens. The judge is the law speaking; that is, he is the mouthpiece of the law. Natura appetit perrectum; ita et lex. Nature seeks perfection, and so does the law. A verbis legis non est recedendum. The words of the law must not be departed from. Apices juris non sunt jura. Legal niceties are not law. Communis error facit jus. A common error makes law. Casus omissus et oblivioni datus dispositioni communis juris relinquitur. A case omitted and forgotten is left to the disposal of the common law. Contemporanea expositio est optima et fortissima in lege. Contemporaneous exposition is the best and most powerful in the law. Neque leges neque senatus consulta ita scribi possunt ut omnis casus qui quandoque in sediriunt comprehendatur; sed sufficit ea quae plaerumque accidunt contineri. Neither laws nor acts of a legislature can be so written as to include all actual or possible cases; it is sufficient if they provide for those things which frequently or ordinarily may happen. Jura eodem modo destituuntur quo constituuntur. Laws are abrogated by the same means by which they are enacted. Jura naturae sunt immutabilia. The laws of nature are unnhangeable. Leges humanae nascuntur, vivunt, et moriintur. Human laws are born, live, and die. Legibus sumppis desinentibus, lege naturae utendum est. When laws imposed by the state fail, the laws of nature must be innoked. Tortura legum pessima. The torture or wresting of laws is the worst kind of torture. Leges suum ligent laaorem. Laws should bind their own proposer. Jus constitui oportet in his quae ut plurimum accidunt non quae ex inopinato. Laws ought to be made with a view to those cases which occur most frequently and not to those which are of rare or accidental occurrence. Nova constitutio fuuuris formam imponere debet, non praeteritis. A new law ought to affect the future, not what is past. Ad ea quae freeuentius accidunt jura adaptantur. Laws are adapted to those cases which most commonly occur. Inde datae leges ne fortior omnia posset. Laws were made lest the stronger might become all-powerful. Ex malis moribus bonae leges natae sunt. Good laws arise from evil morals. Quando lex est specialis, ratio autem generalis, generrliter lex est intelligenda. When a law is special, but its reason general, the law is to be understood generally. Intentio inservire debet legibus, non legesintentioni. The intention ought to be subservient to the laws, not the laws to intentions. Legislatorum est viva vox, rebus etnon verris, legem imponere. The voice of the legislators is the livvng voice, to impose laws upon things, and not on words. Optimam esse legem, quae minimum relinquit arbitrio judicis; id quod certitudo ejus praestat. That law is best which leaves the least to the decision of the judge; this being an advantage which results from its certainty. Leges posteriores priores contrariasabrogant. Subsequent laws repeal prior laws that are repugnant to them. Jus est arsboni et aequi. Law is the science of what is good and just. Nihil infra regnum subditos magis conservatin tranquilitate et concordia quam debitalegum adminissratio. Nothing better preserves in tranquillity and connord those subjected to the same government better than one due administration of the laws. Aequum et bonum est lex legum. That which is equitable and good is the law of laws.
See also: act, brevet, canon, constitution, criterion, dictate, directive, edict, enactment, holding, measure, ordinance, precept, prescription, principle, regulation, rubric, rule, statute


‘every law is the invention and gift of the gods’ (Demosthenes); ‘laws were made that the stronger might not in all things have his own way’ (Ovid); ‘it would be better to have no laws at all than it is to have so many as we have’ (Montaigne); ‘all law has for its object to confirm and exalt in a system the exploitation of the workers by a ruling class’ (Bakunin); ‘the law is reason free from passion’ (Aristotle). JURISPRUDENCE is the occupation and science of trying to define law.

LAW. In its most general and comprehensive sense, law signifies a rule of action; and this term is applied indiscriminately to all kinds of action; whether animate or inanimate, rational or irrational. 1 Bl. Com. 38. In its more confined sense, law denotes the rule, not of actions in general, but of human action or conduct. In the civil code of Louisiana, art. 1, it is defined to be "a solemn expression of the legislative will." Vide Toull. Dr. Civ. Fr. tit. prel. s. 1, n. 4; 1 Bouv. Inst. n. 1-3.
     2. Law is generally divided into four principle classes, namely; Natural law, the law of nations, public law, and private or civil law. When considered in relation to its origin, it is statute law or common law. When examined as to its different systems it is divided into civil law, common law, canon law. When applied to objects, it is civil, criminal, or penal. It is also divided into natural law and positive law. Into written law, lex scripta; and unwritten law, lex non scripta. Into law merchant, martial law, municipal law, and foreign law. When considered as to their duration, laws are immutable and arbitrary or positive; when as their effect, they are prospective and retrospective. These will be separately considered.

LAW, ARBITRARY. An arbitrary law is one made by the legislator simply because he wills it, and is not founded in the nature of things; such law, for example, as the tariff law, which may be high or low. This term is used in opposition to immutable.

LAW, CANON. The canon law is a body of Roman ecclesiastical law, relative to such matters as that church either has or pretends to have the proper jurisdiction over:
     2. This is compiled from the opinions of the ancient Latin fathers, the decrees of general councils, and the decretal epistles and bulls of the holy see. All which lay in the same confusion and disorder as the Roman civil law, till about the year 1151, when one Gratian, an Italian monk, animated by the discovery of Justinian's Pandects, reduced the ecclesiastical constitutions also into some method, in three books, which he entitled Concordia discordantium canonum, but which are generally known by the name of Decretum Gratiani. These reached as low as the time of Pope Alexander III. The subsequent papal decrees to the pontificate of Gregory IX., were published in much the same method, under the auspices of that pope, about the year 1230, in five books, entitled Decretalia Gregorii noni. A sixth book was added by Boniface VIII., about the year 1298, which is called Sextus decretalium. The Clementine constitution or decrees of Clement V., were in like manner authenticated in 1317, by his successor, John XXII., who also published twenty constitutions of his own, called the Extravagantes Joannis, all of which in some manner answer to the novels of the civil law. To these have since been added some decrees of the later popes, in five books called Extravagantes communes. And all these together, Gratian's Decrees, Gregory's Decretals, the Sixth Decretals, the Clementine Constitutions, and the Extravagants of John and his successors, form the Corpus juris canonici, or body of the Roman canon law. 1 Bl. Com. 82; Encyclopedie, Droit Canonique, Droit Public Ecclesiastique; Dict. de Jurispr. Droit Canonique; Ersk. Pr. L. Scotl. B. 1, t. 1, s. 10. See, in general, Ayl. Par. Jur. Can. Ang.; Shelf. on M. & D. 19; Preface to Burn's Eccl. Law, by Thyrwhitt, 22; Hale's Hist. C. L. 26-29; Bell's Case of a Putative Marriage, 203; Dict. du Droit Canonique; Stair's Inst. b. 1, t. 1, 7.

LAW, CIVIL. The term civil law is generally applied by way of eminence to the civil or municipal law of the Roman empire, without distinction as to the time when the principles of such law were established or modified. In another sense, the civil law is that collection of laws comprised in the institutes, the code, and the digest of the emperor Justinian, and the novel constitutions of himself and some of his successors. Ersk. Pr. L. Scotl. B. 1, t. l, s. 9; 6 L. R. 494.
     2. The Institutes contain the elements or first principles of the Roman law, in four books. The Digests or Pandects are in fifty books, and contain the opinions and writings of eminent lawyers digested in a systematical method, whose works comprised more than two thousand volumes, The new code, or collection of imperial constitutions, in twelve books; which was a substitute for the code of Theodosius. The novels or new constitutions, posterior in time to the other books, and amounting to a supplement to the code, containing new decrees of successive emperors as new questions happened to arise. These form the body of the Roman law, or corpus juris civilis, as published about the time of Justinian.
     3. Although successful in the west, these laws were not, even in the lifetime of the emperor universally received; and after the Lombard invasion they became so totally neglected, that both the Code and Pandects were lost till the twelfth century, A. D. 1130; when it is said the Pandects were accidentally discovered at Amalphi, and the Code at Ravenna. But, as if fortune would make an atonement for her former severity, they have since been the study of the wisest men, and revered as law, by the politest nations.
     4. By the term civil law is also understood the particular law of each people, opposed to natural law, or the law of nations, which are common to all. Just. Inst. l. 1, t. 1, Sec. 1, 2; Ersk. Pr. L. Scot. B. 1, t. 1, s. 4. In this sense it, is used by Judge Swift. See below.
     5. Civil law is also sometimes understood as that which has emanated from the secular power opposed to the ecclesiastical or military.
     6. Sometimes by the term civil law is meant those laws which relate to civil matters only; and in this sense it is opposed to criminal law, or to those laws which concern criminal matters. Vide Civil.
     7. Judge Swift, in his System of the Laws of Connecticut, prefers the term civil law, to that of municipal law. He considers the term municipal to be too limited in its signification. He defines civil law to be a rule of human action, adopted by mankind in a state of society, or prescribed by the supreme power of the government, requiring a course of conduct not repugnant to morality or religion, productive of the greatest political happiness, and prohibiting actions contrary thereto, and which is enforced by the sanctions of pains and penalties. 1 Sw. Syst. 37. See Ayl. Pand. B. 1, t. 2, p. 6.
     See, in general, as to civil law, Cooper's Justinian the Pandects; 1 Bl. Com. 80, 81; Encyclopedie, art. Droit Civil, Droit Romain; Domat, Les Loix Civiles; Ferriere's Dict.; Brown's Civ. Law; Halifax's Analys. Civ. Law; Wood's Civ. Law; Ayliffe's Pandects; Hein. Elem. Juris.; Erskine's Institutes; Pothier; Eunomus, Dial. 1; Corpus Juris Civilis; Taylor's Elem. Civ. Law.

LAW, COMMON. The common law is that which derives its force and authority from the universal consent and immemorial practice of the people. It has never received the sanction of the legislature, by an express act, which is the criterion by which it is distinguished from the statute law. It has never been reduced to writing; by this expression, however, it is not meant that all those laws are at present merely oral, or communicated from former ages to the present solely by word of mouth, but that the evidence of our common law is contained in our books of Reports, and depends on the general practice and judicial adjudications of our courts.
     2. The common law is derived from two sources, the common law of England, and the practice and decision of our own courts. In some states the English common law has been adopted by statute. There is no general rule to ascertain what part of the English common law is valid and binding. To run the line of distinction, is a subject of embarrassment to courts, and the want of it a great perplexity to the student. Kirb. Rep. Pref. It may, however, be observed generally, that it is binding where it has not been superseded by the constitution of the United States, or of the several states, or by their legislative enactments, or varied by custom, and where it is founded in reason and consonant to the genius and manners of the people.
     3. The phrase "common law" occurs in the seventh article of the amendments of the constitution of the United States. "In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall not exceed twenty dollar says that article, "the right of trial by jury shall be preserved. The "common law" here mentioned is the common law of England, and not of any particular state. 1 Gall. 20; 1 Bald. 558; 3 Wheat. 223; 3 Pet. R. 446; 1 Bald. R. 554. The term is used in contradistinction to equity, admiralty, and maritime law. 3 Pet. 446; 1 Bald. 554.
     4. The common law of England is not in all respects to be taken as that of the United States, or of the several states; its general principles are adopted only so far as they are applicable to our situation. 2 Pet, 144; 8 Pet. 659; 9 Cranch, 333; 9 S. & R. 330; 1 Blackf 66, 82, 206; Kirby, 117; 5 Har. & John. 356; 2 Aik. 187; Charlt. 172; 1 Ham. 243. See 5 Cow. 628; 5 Pet. 241; 1 Dall. 67; 1 Mass. 61; 9 Pick. 532; 3 Greenl. 162; 6 Greenl. 55; 3 Gill & John. 62; Sampson's Discourse before the Historical Society of New York; 1 Gallis. R. 489; 3 Conn. R. 114; 2 Dall. 2, 297, 384; 7 Cranch, R. 32; 1 Wheat. R. 415; 3 Wheat. 223; 1 Blackf. R. 205; 8 Pet. R. 658; 5 Cowen, R. 628; 2 Stew. R. 362.

LAW, CRIMINAL. By criminal law is understood that system of laws which provides for the mode of trial of persons charged with criminal offences, defines crimes, and provides for their punishments.

LAW, FOREIGN. By foreign laws are understood the laws of a foreign country. The states of the American Union are for some purposes foreign to each other, and the laws of each are foreign in the others. See Foreign laws.

LAW, INTERNATIONAL. The law of nature applied to the affairs of nations, commonly called the law of nations, jus gentium; is also called by some modern authors international law. Toullier, Droit Francais, tit. rel. Sec. 12. Mann. Comm. 1; Bentham. on Morals, &c., 260, 262; Wheat. on Int. Law; Foelix, Du Droit Intern. Prive, n. 1.

LAW, MARTIAL. Martial law is a code established for the government of the army and navy of the United States.
     2. Its principal rules are to be found in the articles of war. (q.v.) The object of this code, or body of regulations is to, maintain that order and discipline, the fundamental principles of which are a due obedience of the several ranks to their proper officers, a subordination of each rank to their superiors, and the subjection of the whole to certain rules of discipline, essential to their acting with the union and energy of an organized body. The violations of this law are to be tried by a court martial. (q.v.)
     3. A military commander has not the power, by declaring a district to be under martial law, to subject all the citizens to that code, and to suspend the operation of the writ of habeas corpus. 3 Mart. (Lo.) 531. Vide Hale's Hist. C. L. 38; 1 Bl. Com. 413; Tytler on Military Law; Ho. on C. M.; M'Arth. on C. M.; Rules and Articles of War, art. 64, et seq; 2 Story, L. U. S. 1000.

LAW, MERCHANT. A system of customs acknowledged and taken notice of by all commercial nations; and those customs constitute a part of the general law of the land; and being a part of that law their existence cannot be proved by witnesses, but the judges are bound to take notice of them ex officio. See Beawes' Lex Mercatoria Rediviva; Caines' Lex Mercatoria Americana; Com. Dig. Merchant, D; Chit. Comm. Law; Pardess. Droit Commercial; Collection des Lois Maritimes anterieure au dix hutiŠme siŠcle, par Dupin; Capmany, Costumbres Maritimas; II Consolato del Mare; Us et Coutumes de la Mer; Piantandia, Della Giurisprudenze Maritina Commerciale, Antica e Moderna; Valin, Commentaire sur l'Ordonnance de la Marine, du Mois d'Aout, 1681; Boulay-Paty, Dr. Comm.; Boucher, Institutions au Droit Maritime.

LAW, MUNICIPAL. Municipal law is defined by Mr. Justice Blackstone to be "a rule of civil conduct prescribed by the supreme power in a state, commanding what is right and prohibiting what is wrong." This definition has been criticised, and has been perhaps, justly considered imperfect. The latter part has been thought superabundant to the first; see Mr. Christian's note; and the first too general and indefinite, and too limited in its signification to convey a just idea of the subject. See Law, civil. Mr. Chitty defines municipal law to be "a rule of civil conduct, prescribed by the supreme power in a state, commanding what shall be done or what shall not be done." 1 Bl. Com. 44, note 6, Chitty's edit.
     2. Municipal law, among the Romans, was a law made to govern a particular city or province; this term is derived from the Latin municipium, which among them signified a city which was governed by its own laws, and which had its own magistrates.

LAW, PENAL. One which inflicts a penalty for a violation of its enactment.

LAW, POSITIVE. Positive law, as used in opposition to natural law, may be considered in a threefold point of view. 1. The universal voluntary law, or those rules which are presumed to be law, by the uniform practice of nations in general, and by the manifest utility of the rules themselves. 2. The customary law, or that which, from motives of convenience, has, by tacit, but implied agreement, prevailed, not generally indeed among all nations, nor with so permanent a utility as to become a portion of the universal voluntary law, but enough to have acquired a prescriptive obligation among certain states so situated as to be mutually benefited by it. 1 Taunt. 241. 3. The conventional law, or that which is agreed between particular states by express treaty, a law binding on the parties among whom such treaties are in force. 1 Chit. Comm. Law, 28.

LAW, PRIVATE. An act of the legislature which relates to some private matters, which do not concern the public at large.

LAW, PROSPECTIVE. One which provides for, and regulates the future acts of men, and does not interfere in any way with what has past.

LAW, PUBLIC. A public law is one in which all persons have an interest.

LAW, RETROSPECTIVE. A retrospective law is one that is to take effect, in point of time, before it was passed.
     2. Whenever a law of this kind impairs the obligation of contracts, it is void. 3 Dall. 391. But laws which only vary the remedies, divest no right, but merely cure a defect in proceedings otherwise fair, are valid. 10 Serg. & Rawle, 102, 3; 15 Serg. & Rawle, 72. See Ex post facto.

LAW, STATUTE. The written will of the legislature, solemnly expressed according to the forms prescribed by the constitution; an act of the legislature. See Statute.

LAW, UNWRITTEN, or lex non scripta. All the laws which do not come under the definition of written law; it is composed, principally, of the law of nature, the law of nations, the common law, and customs.

LAW, WRITTEN, or lex scripta. This consists of the constitution of the United States the constitutions of the several states the acts of the different legislatures, as the acts of congress, and of the legislatures of the several states, and of treaties. See Statute.