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What is the Law?

1. What is “law”? 

The common understanding of law is that it consists of rules and regulations established and enforced by a governing body. In the United States, the governing body is a combination of federal, state, and local government. While the above definition is accurate, it is important to understand the source or genesis of societal law. Laws are also commonly understood as manifestations of societal norms or beliefs. Other theories, however, focus on law as naturally occurring based upon commonalities or norms that individuals share. The societal view of law is the most widely understood and accepted. That is, if society believes that certain rights or procedures should be in place, the representative law makers act to bring about a rule effectuating that societal norm. In summary, laws are rules that society (or a represented majority) accept as being necessary for the orderly administration of that society.

  • Note: Law, as it is promulgated and administered by the sovereign, may fail to provide an adequate remedy for individuals harmed. In Old England, individuals unable to obtain an adequate remedy at law could petition the King directly for justice. This was known as a court of “equity” or “in chancery”. The King would order an outcome that was fair despite the absence of a legal remedy. The King was said to act in equity. Equity or the power to do equity still exists in today’s courts. It exists independently but works in concert with the law to deliver justice. The major theories of law (jurisprudence) are discussed further below.
  • Discussion: Individuals living in certain parts of the country may be familiar with laws prohibiting the purchase of alcohol on certain days of the year. In the southeastern region of the United States, many local governments prohibit the purchase of alcohol on Sundays. These laws, commonly known as “blue laws”, reflect the local community’s sentiment regarding the sale of a controversial item on a day that is sacred to Christians. Many of these communities have members with religious beliefs other than Christianity (e.g., Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Universalism, etc.). Nonetheless, the dominant community belief results in a societal norm or belief that becomes law through the actions of the representative government. Take a moment to think about other laws that are a reflection of societal norms. For example, think of the things individuals do every day, such as driving, purchasing property, getting married, entering into contracts. For a more in-depth discussion, ask yourself why do states regulate the trade of securities on public markets?

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