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1.4: Sources of Law

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    Where does law come from? How do individuals and businesses know right from wrong? Not all actions that are considered “wrong” or inappropriate are violations of the law. They simply may represent social norms. So what is the difference? There are two types of rules in our society—social norms and laws.

    Social norms are the informal rules that govern behavior in groups and societies. Social norms and cultural expectations may be violated with negative social or professional consequences for doing so. However, no legal repercussions follow violating social norms alone.

    Violations of law are different. Violating the law carries penalties, such as civil liability, fines, or loss of liberty. While it is optional to conform to social customs, people are compelled to obey the law under threat of penalty.

    Laws are generally classified as public law or private law. Public law applies to everyone. It is law that has been created by a legitimate authority with the power to create law, and it applies to the people within its jurisdiction. In the United States, the lawmaking authority itself is also subject to those laws, because no one is “above” the law. If the law is violated, penalties may be levied against violators. Examples of public law include constitutions, criminal laws, and administrative laws. For example, if someone steals items from a store, the thief is violating public law. He committed the crime of theft which affects the community as a whole (not just the store owners), and the crime is defined in public legislation.

    Private law is law that is binding on specific parties. For instance, parties to a contract are involved in a private law agreement. The terms of the contract apply to the parties of the contract but not anyone else. If the parties have a contract dispute, the terms of the contract and the remedy for breach will apply only to the parties of the contract. In addition to contracts, other examples of private law include tort and property laws. For example, if someone installs an industrial smoker on his property and the smoke creates a dense haze in the neighbor’s yard, there may be a violation of private law because the smoke is interfering with the neighbor’s right to peacefully enjoy one’s property.

    Laws are also classified as civil or criminal. Civil law is usually brought by a private party against another private party. For example, one company decides to sue another for breach of contract. Or a customer sues a business when injured by the company’s product. Most laws affecting businesses are civil.

    Criminal law involves a governmental decision to prosecute someone for violating a criminal statute. If someone breaks a criminal law, he or she could lose their freedom (i.e. be sent to prison) or lose their life (i.e. if convicted of a capital offense). In a civil action, no one is sent to prison. Usually, liability results in the loss of property such as money or assets.

    Civil Criminal
    Source of Law statute or common law statutes defining crimes
    Who files case? business or individual suffering harm the government (e.g. District Attorney)
    Burden of Proof preponderance of evidence beyond a reasonable doubt
    Remedy damages, injunction, specific performance punishment (e.g. fine or imprisonment)
    Purpose provide compensation or private relief protect society

    Additionally, some law is procedural and some law is substantive. Procedural law describes the legal process and rules that are required and must be followed. For instance, parties who are sued in court must receive notice of the lawsuit before the court can impose judgment against them. Substantive law refers to the actual substance of the law or the merits of the claim, case, or action. Substantive law embodies the ideas of legal rights and duties and is captured by different sources of law, including the Constitution, statutes, and common law.

    For example, if someone drives fifty-five miles per hour in a forty mile-per-hour zone, she has broken the substantive rule of law of the speed limit. However, how and what gets decided in court related to the speeding ticket is a matter of procedural law. For example, whether the driver is entitled to a hearing before a judge, whether she has a right to be represented by legal counsel, whether the hearing takes place within a certain amount of time after the ticket was issued, and what type of evidence can be presented are procedural law issues.

    Sources of Law

    In the United States, our laws come primarily from:

    • Federal and state constitutions;
    • Statutory law from Congress, the state legislatures, and local legislative bodies;
    • Common law from federal and state appellate courts;
    • Administrative rules and regulations;
    • Treaties and conventions; and
    • Executive orders.


    The most fundamental law in the United States is the US Constitution, which is the supreme law of the nation. Any law that conflicts with it is void. The Constitution serves three important functions. First, it establishes the structure of our national government and identifies the powers of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. Second, it defines the boundaries of each branch’s authority and creates “checks” on each branch by the other branches. For example, the president is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, but does not have the power to declare war. That duty falls to Congress. And, third, the Constitution guarantees civil liberties and individual rights.

    The power granted to the federal government by the Constitution is limited. Any powers not expressly granted to the federal government by the Constitution are reserved to the states. This means that if the Constitution does not give the federal government power over a particular area, then the states regulate it.

    The first ten amendments to the Constitution are known as the Bill of Rights. Despite the limited power granted to the federal government by the Constitution, the Bill of Rights protects certain individual civil rights and liberties from governmental interference. These rights include the freedom of speech and religion, the right to bear arms, and the rights of individuals who are suspected and accused of crimes.

    Figure 1.2 Separation of Powers of the Federal Government

    Graphic showing the responsibilities of each branch of the federal government

    Each state also has its own constitution, which serves essentially the same function for the state government as the US Constitution serves for the federal government. Specifically, they establish limits of state government power, establish the organization and duties of the different branches of government at the state level, and protect fundamental rights of state citizens. This dual system of government in the United States is called federalism, which is a governance structure whereby the federal government and the state governments coexist through a shared power scheme.

    Figure 1.3 Separation of Powers of the State Governments

    Graphic showing the responsibilities of each branch of the state governments


    Statutes are laws created by a legislative body. Congress is the federal legislative body, and each state also has its own legislative body. Almost all statutes are created by the same method. An idea for a new law is proposed in the legislature. This proposal is called a bill. The House of Representatives and Senate independently vote on a bill. If the majority of both chambers approves it, the bill is sent to the president or governor for approval. If the president or governor signs the bill, then it becomes a statute.

    Local governments, such as counties, cities, and townships, may be authorized under a state constitution to create or adopt ordinances. An ordinance is a legislative act of a local government entity. Examples of ordinances include building codes, zoning laws, and misdemeanors such as jaywalking.

    Common Law

    Binding legal principles also come from the courts. When appellate courts decide a case, they may interpret and apply legal principles in a way that are binding on lower courts in the future. The process of applying a prior appellate decision to a case is called precedent. Simply put, precedent is when judges use past decisions to guide them. The benefit of precedent is that it makes the law predictable and furthers the rule of law by applying legal principles to the greater community, not just the parties to a lawsuit. Businesses value common law systems because they reduce the cost of business. For example, if a business is unsure of how its contract rights will be applied by the court, it can understand its rights by learning how courts interpreted similar contract provisions in past lawsuits. This allows businesses to assess their risks, determine their liability, and make rational business decisions without the expense of litigation.

    Administrative Rules and Regulations

    Administrative law is the collection of rules and decisions made by agencies to fill in particular details missing from constitutions and statutes. For example, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is the federal agency responsible for collecting national taxes and administering the Internal Revenue Code enacted by Congress. All businesses and individuals must follow the IRS rules and regulations about how to report, file, and pay applicable taxes that Congress levies. Congress passes statute defining “what” taxes need to be paid. The IRS adopts the rules about “how” those taxes are paid.

    In the United States, many of the day-to-day regulation of businesses is done by administrative agencies. These agencies are created by the legislature to implement and enforce a particular statute. Agencies often report to the executive branch, but some are run by independent commissions. Legislative bodies give agencies the power to create rules and regulations that individuals and businesses must follow to comply with the statute. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created to implement and enforce the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.

    Treaties and Conventions

    A treaty is a binding agreement between two nations. A convention is a binding agreement among a group of nations. In the US, a treaty or convention is generally negotiated by the executive branch. To be binding, the US Constitution requires the Senate to ratify treaties by a two-thirds vote. Once ratified, a treaty becomes part of federal law with the same weight and effect as a statute passed by the entire Congress. Therefore, treaties and conventions have equal standing as statutes in US law.

    Executive Orders

    Article II, Section 1 of the US Constitution gives the president the power to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” Under this power, the president may issue executive orders requiring officials in the executive branch to perform their duties in a particular manner. State governors have the same authority under state constitutions. Although they are not laws that apply directly to individuals and businesses, executive orders are important legal documents because they direct the government’s enforcement efforts.

    Hierarchy of Sources of Law

    Priority Source Comment
    1 Constitutions Exist at both federal and state levels
    2 (tie) Statutes Laws passed by the federal or state legislatures
    2 (tie) Treaties and Conventions International agreements that have the same standing as statutes
    4 Judicial Opinions Court interpretation and application of constitutions, statutes, treaties, agency regulations, and executive orders
    5 Agency Regulations Rules and regulations adopted by administrative agencies at the federal, state, or local level
    6 Executive Orders Guidance from the president or governor to executive branch officials about how to perform their duty

    This page titled 1.4: Sources of Law is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Melissa Randall and Community College of Denver Students via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.