Laws are important for protecting the health, safety and well-being of the public. They are enacted to punish behavior that threatens others in society, and they give victims some degree of protection.
The legal system strives to create a society that is just, equal and fair. It imposes moral and ethical standards that people must abide by. If they don't, they will be reprimanded. Laws work on all levels, from regulating the private affairs of individuals to dictating expected behaviors of individuals and states with the federal government. Regardless of whether laws control activities in the public or private sectors, they are designed to uphold citizens' rights and shield them from abuse by fellow citizens, corporations and the government.
The U.S. Legal System
Laws can be enacted at the federal, state and local levels. Federal laws are designed with the society's best interests in mind. They are designed to protect the safety, health and welfare of the public. Federal laws set rules and procedures for activities that involve interpersonal interaction on a federal and national level. This includes transportation, energy and interstate trade. At the state and local levels, laws concern issues within state or county borders. Food safety and sanitation is one area of state-regulated law. States also have the right to enforce their own driving laws to make roads safe for citizens. Laws are also designed to protect basic human rights granted to citizens through the United States Constitution. The Bill of Rights grants U.S. citizens certain inalienable rights and freedoms, such as freedom of speech, religion and the press. As citizens, people also have the right to freedom from discrimination based on age, gender, race and disability.
Most laws in the U.S. come from the Constitution. Laws originate from two primary sources, which are common law and statutory law. Common law is regulated through the judicial branch. Although courts cannot create laws in the judicial system, they are allowed to interpret them. As a result, common law decisions are based on laws written in the U.S. Constitution and on case precedence. Statutory law, in contrast, contains statutes that are created by the legislative branch. Courts are free to interpret these laws and apply them as they see appropriate on a case-by-case basis.
Adaptation of Laws to Society
As society progresses, so does the legal system. Although laws are designed to set rules and expectations for model citizen behavior, they can change in time. Laws that applied in the 18th and 19th centuries, for example, might not meet the needs of today's society. For example, laws against harassment and bullying have been modified from their original versions to take cyberbullying and Internet usage into consideration. Sometimes, laws are enacted that are later considered unjust or unfair. Slavery laws passed in the 1700s and 1800s, for example, which required escaped slaves to return to their owners, were eventually erased from the legal system.
In the U.S., people convicted of a crime typically face some degree of punishment, which can be a fine, payment of damages or imprisonment. Just as the legal system exists to prosecute offenders, however, it makes allowances for certain disadvantaged segments of the population, such as people who are mentally ill.