Identify and describe the four main sources of American law.

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pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the United States’ legal system, there are four main sources of law.  These are constitutions, statutes, administrative regulations, and case law. 

  • Constitutions are the laws that establish systems of government (state or federal).  They set out the limits of what governments can and cannot do.  Within any state, the constitution overrides any law that contradicts it.  The US Constitution is the supreme law of the land and no law (including a state constitution) can violate it.
  • Statutes are what we often think of as law.  These are the laws passed by legislative bodies.  Congress passes statutes that apply to the country as a whole, state legislatures pass state laws, and local legislatures (often called city councils) pass laws that apply only to their own localities.
  • Administrative regulations are rules that are written by agencies of the executive branch.  These government agencies have the authority to write rules because the legislatures give it to them.  These agencies’ employees are supposed to be experts who will be better at writing detailed rules than the legislators are.  Any administrative regulation can be overridden and repealed by the legislature.
  • Case law consists of decisions and opinions issued by courts in various legal cases.  Courts are asked to interpret the laws.  When they do so, their opinions as to what the laws mean help to shape the law.  For example, the recent Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage shaped the law to say that the Constitution recognizes a right to such marriages.
mkoren eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There are several sources of American law. These include the Constitution, statutes, judicial opinions, and administrative regulations.

State and national constitutions are plans of government. These documents indicate what the government may and may not do. These documents also spell out the structure of the government.

Statutes are laws. The legislative branch creates them. Members of the legislative branch must vote on a statute in order for it to become law. Then, the chief executive must approve it.

Judicial opinions influence laws. Laws are often written in a very broad manner. As a result, there is often uncertainty regarding how to interpret a law. Sometimes, the courts need to clarify the meaning of a law. This is done in a judicial opinion.

Finally, administrative regulations are a source of laws. Administrative agencies often issue rules regarding how to enforce a law. The legislative branch often gives the executive branch the power to develop these rules. It should be noted that the legislative branch could remove this power by legislative action.

There are several sources of American law.