Law has different meanings as well as different functions. Philosophers have considered issues of justice and law for centuries, and several different approaches, or schools of legal thought, have emerged. In this chapter, we will look at those different meanings and approaches and will consider how social and political dynamics interact with the ideas that animate the various schools of legal thought. We will also look at typical sources of “positive law” in the United States and how some of those sources have priority over others, and we will set out some basic differences between the US legal system and other legal systems.

1.1 What Is Law?

Law is a word that means different things at different times. Black’s Law Dictionary says that law is “a body of rules of action or conduct prescribed by controlling authority, and having binding legal force. That which must be obeyed and followed by citizens subject to sanctions or legal consequence is a law.”Black’s Law Dictionary, 6th ed., s.v. “law.”

Functions of the Law

In a nation, the law can serve to (1) keep the peace, (2) maintain the status quo, (3) preserve individual rights, (4) protect minorities against majorities, (5) promote social justice, and (6) provide for orderly social change. Some legal systems serve these purposes better than others. Although a nation ruled by an authoritarian government may keep the peace and maintain the status quo, it may also oppress minorities or political opponents (e.g., Burma, Zimbabwe, or Iraq under Saddam Hussein). Under colonialism, European nations often imposed peace in countries whose borders were somewhat arbitrarily created by those same European nations. Over several centuries prior to the twentieth century, empires were built by Spain, Portugal, Britain, Holland, France, Germany, Belgium, and Italy. With regard to the functions of the law, the empire may have kept the peace—largely with force—but it changed the status quo and seldom promoted the native peoples’ rights or social justice within the colonized nation.

In nations that were former colonies of European nations, various ethnic and tribal factions have frequently made it difficult for a single, united government to rule effectively. In Rwanda, for example, power struggles between Hutus and Tutsis resulted in genocide of the Tutsi minority. (Genocide is the deliberate and systematic killing or displacement of one group of people by another group. In 1948, the international community formally condemned the crime of genocide.) In nations of the former Soviet Union, the withdrawal of a central power created power vacuums that were exploited by ethnic leaders. When Yugoslavia broke up, the different ethnic groups—Croats, Bosnians, and Serbians—fought bitterly for home turf rather than share power. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the effective blending of different groups of families, tribes, sects, and ethnic groups into a national governing body that shares power remains to be seen.

Law and Politics

In the United States, legislators, judges, administrative agencies, governors, and presidents make law, with substantial input from corporations, lobbyists, and a diverse group of nongovernment organizations (NGOs) such as the American Petroleum Institute, the Sierra Club, and the National Rifle Association. In the fifty states, judges are often appointed by governors or elected by the people. The process of electing state judges has become more and more politicized in the past fifteen years, with growing campaign contributions from those who would seek to seat judges with similar political leanings.

In the federal system, judges are appointed by an elected official (the president) and confirmed by other elected officials (the Senate). If the president is from one party and the other party holds a majority of Senate seats, political conflicts may come up during the judges’ confirmation processes. Such a division has been fairly frequent over the past fifty years.

In most nation-states (as countries are called in international law), knowing who has power to make and enforce the laws is a matter of knowing who has political power; in many places, the people or groups that have military power can also command political power to make and enforce the laws. Revolutions are difficult and contentious, but each year there are revolts against existing political-legal authority; an aspiration for democratic rule, or greater “rights” for citizens, is a recurring theme in politics and law.