Street Law: A Course in Practical Law

Chapter 1: What is Law?

Chapter Overviews

Laws are rules made by the government that tell people in a society how they should act. While every society has some type of law, it can take many different forms depending on the given society. Stable societies depend on government officials to enforce the laws and the citizens to obey them.

Laws and Values Laws generally reflect people's ideas about right and wrong. However, not everything that is immoral is illegal. Laws often change over time as a society's values change. One goal of the law in democratic societies is to respect the majority's wants while protecting the rights of those who have less of a voice in the system.

Human Rights Human rights are the rights that belong to people simply because they are human beings. Most countries have agreed to recognize and respect human rights by signing the Universal Declaration of Rights. The United Nations has developed a system of international treaties that protects specific human rights. Many countries also create laws aimed at protecting human rights. Our Constitution, Bill of Rights, and other state and federal laws are all influenced by a desire to protect human rights.

Balancing Rights with Responsibilities Americans enjoy many individual rights, but some people argue that these rights must be balanced with social responsibilities to foster a sense of community.

Kinds of Laws Law can be divided into two major categories: civil and criminal. Criminal laws regulate public conduct. In a criminal case, the government brings legal action against a person and imposes a penalty. Civil laws regulate relations between private individuals and may be enforced in a civil action by a private citizen (or group) who feels wronged. Sometimes the same act or wrong can be tried as both a civil and criminal case. However, criminal cases require a higher standard of proof for conviction than civil cases, because the penalties are more severe.

Our Constitutional Framework The Constitution is the highest law in the United States and the longest lasting written constitution in the world. The U.S. Constitution sets forth guidelines for the organization of the government, lists the government's powers and limits, and outlines the freedoms of U.S. citizens. The Constitution also designates that the federal government's power must be divided among three branches, each with distinct roles and checks on the other branches' power. In addition to federal power being shared among the three branches, power is also divided between the federal and state governments. Each state has its own constitution, which organizes its government and sets out the rights of its people. These constitutions, like the federal Constitution, are difficult to change, but amendment processes exist and are used when necessary.

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