Chapter Fifteen Section Two
Types of Laws
Criminal and Civil Law
When we think of laws, we often consider the ideas of criminal laws, such as protection from and conviction of fraud, drunk driving, robbery, drug trafficking, physical violence, and more. But that’s not the only kind of laws in our society. Not only criminal laws exist, but so do civil laws. Civil laws regulate noncriminal actions that may end up in disputes between parties. Public law concerns alleged violations of constitutional rights and disputes involving the actions of government agencies. International law is the law of relations between countries. Two types of law affect us most-criminal and civil law. These laws help keep a peaceful and orderly society. People who break these laws often will find themselves in a courtroom.
Criminal laws are the laws that seek to keep people from purposefully or recklessly harming each other or each other’s property. American courts work on an adversary system of justice. Under this system, the courtroom serves as an arena where lawyers for opposing sides try to present their strongest cases. The judge has an impartial role and should be fair to both sides. Critics of the adversary system argue that it encourages lawyers to ignore evidence that is not favorable to their side. Supporters claim that it is the best system to bring out the facts of a case.
In criminal cases, the government is always the plaintiff-the party that brings the charges against the other party or alleged criminal. This is because the American system of justice assumes that society, or everyone, is the victim when a crime is committed. The person or group being sued is the defendant. About 95 percent of criminal trials in the United States are for violations of state laws. Most criminal cases are titled in terms of the state against the defendant-for instance, State of Missouri v. Kris Kringle. This shows that the government, instead of the individual crime victim, is bringing action against the defendant.
Crimes are graded as either felonies or misdemeanors, depending on their seriousness. Murder, rape, kidnapping, robbery and other serious crimes are felonies because they have very serious consequences. Misdemeanors are offenses such as vandalism, stealing inexpensive items, writing bad checks for low amounts, and so on. Typically, misdemeanors are punished with a fine or a jail sentence of less than one year.
Civil cases involve disputes between people or groups of people-individuals, organizations, or governments-in which no criminal laws have been broken. These disputes are not viewed as a threat to the social order, so the state will not take legal action. When a civil case goes to court, it is called a lawsuit. A lawsuit is a legal action in which a person or group sues to collect damages for some harm that is done. Individuals who think they have been wronged must take action themselves by filing a lawsuit. The person suing is the plaintiff.
In civil cases, individuals believe they have lost something of value or suffered some damage because of someone else’s blameworthy actions. A case may be a dispute over a contract where one party believes that the other has not fulfilled the terms of an agreement. A contract is an agreement between two or more parties. Suppose that a supplier of raw materials signed a contract to deliver certain goods to a manufacturer by a given date. When the materials do not arrive on time, the manufacturer might sue the supplier for monetary damages.
Another civil case might involve someone accused of plagiarism. This is the copying or stealing of another person’s words and ideas, and passing them off as your own. The person who originally wrote the words could sue you for copying them without giving the writer credit.
Civil law also covers torts, or civil wrongs. In tort law a person may suffer an injury and claim that another party is responsible because of negligence. If your neighbor doesn’t clean their sidewalk in the winter and you fall and injure yourself, you might bring a tort action against that person. You sue them to recover the costs of your medical treatment and other damages.
Family law is another type of civil law. Family law deals with family issues and problems. Typical cases relate to divorce, child custody, adoption, alimony, child support, and spousal or child abuse.
There are laws that affect us all. Public law, or constitutional law, involves rights guaranteed under the Constitution or spelled out in congressional legislation. A constitutional law case might be if a defendant in a criminal matter argued that he was the victim of an unreasonable search and seizure. That would be in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. Constitutional laws are the highest laws in the land; they dictate how the government works.
Another element of public law is administrative law, which includes all the rules and regulations that government agencies of the executive branch issue to carry out their jobs. In an administrative law case an individual might charge that an agency has acted wrongfully. For example, a plaintiff may claim that the Environmental Protection Agency acted contrary to the will of Congress in some of the regulations it issued on pollution.
Statutory law is another type of public law. A statute is a law written by a legislative branch of government. The United States Congress, state legislatures, and local legislatures write thousands of these laws. Statutes regulate our behavior by, for example, setting speed limits, specifying rules for inspecting food products, and setting the minimum age to obtain a work permit. Statutes are also the source of many of the rights and benefits we take for granted, like getting a Social Security check, to enter a veteran’s hospital, get a driver’s license, and to return merchandise purchased at a store.
International law comprises treaties, customs, and agreements among nations. International law might involve military and diplomatic treaties, trade regulations, international agreements, and so forth. Alleged violations of international law may be brought to the International Court of Justice, also called the World Court, which is located in The Hague, the Netherlands.
The United Nations established the World Court in 1946 to hear and make rulings on disputes that nations have brought against other nations. The World Court does not have enforcement powers and must rely on the willingness of the parties involved to accept its rulings. A typical international law case might involve a dispute over fishing rights, such as when one nation believes that fishing boats from another nation are operating in its territorial waters.