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Legal Grind® presents

The Little Law Book

by Miriam Kurtzig Freedman, J.D
Illustrations by Daphne San Jose


Definitions of Key Documents

1. U.S. Constitution:

The document of fundamental principles of law, government, and freedoms by which our government operates. It was adopted in 1789 and has been amended twenty-six times since then.

2. State Constitutions:

Each state have its own constitution.

3. 'Common law':

Case law, court law. The common law (historically from England) is different from code/statutory law (historically from Napoleonís France and adopted in our own state of Louisiana). But in actuality we now have a hybrid of the two systems: statutes by legislation; common law by courts.

Why would you care what a court says in a case about people you never heard of and will probably never meet? Because of the doctrine of precedence. Courts recognize earlier decisions as authority over later ones in the same jurisdiction. This means that courts tend to follow what earlier courts did in the same geographic or subject area. The doctrine of precedence helps give a sense of predictability and stability to our laws. Courts canít do whatever they want with every case. Yes, thereís even a fancy Latin word for this:

4. Stare decisis:

Literally, ìto stand by decided matters.î Courts are reluctant to overrule precedents and, when they do, often do it in little steps, whittling away at the old case bit by bit. Watch whatís happening with the abortion cases relating to Roe v. Wade, Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, and later cases. Thus, if you live in Montana and are interested in a certain subject, say contracts (Kís), you need to know how earlier Montana courts decided K cases similar to yours. That research will affect the rights and responsibilities you have in your case and will guide you in your strategy and preparation. If yours is a federal question, youíll be interested in how the federal courts, especially in your region, decided similar questions.

5. Leading case:

The most important case in a certain area of law. For example, in school desegregation it's Brown v. Board of Education.

6. Statutory law:

Laws passed by legislatures, effective only in the jurisdiction of that legislature. For example, a Maine law is good in Maine. Once you cross over to another state, it has no effect. Young people know this too. That is why they drive over the border to a state with a lower age requirement to buy alcohol. On the other hand, a federal statute has effect in all fifty states, the District of Columbia, the territories, and so on.

7. Regulations:

Written rules set up by federal or state administrative agencies to control, manage, and supervise specific matters over which those agencies have control and for which they can punish or sue violators. The agencies are established by legislatures, who, in effect, delegate to them the right to make regulations. This is an excellent example of the hierarchy in practice. If a conflict arises between the regulation and the statute that authorizes the regulation (the ìenablingî legislation), the statute governs.

As our lives become more complex, more agencies are established with more regulations, and our lives become even more complex! And so it goes!

For example, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) regulations are designed to protect our air, water, and land. Anyone who disobeys them (pollutes the air, water, land) may be found in violation of EPA regulations. The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) regulations control and manage the airwaves (radio and television). The SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) regulations are designed to control and manage the stock exchanges and financial systems in our country.

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