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Foreigner's tribute to the American Legal Culture

 
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The United States Legal System

"The true American contribution to human progress...has been the development of the notion of law as a check upon power.
American society has been dominated by law...
In a legally oriented society we speak law more often than we know...We are all consumers of the law, intimately affected in all the details of our lives by the quality of the product consumed".

Bernard Schwartz,
The Law in America

Introduction
The U.S. legal system affects everyone living in the U.S. Fortunately, the Constitution protects our legal system - and thereby us - against being governed by a person or a group holding ultimate power. The drafters of the Constitution spread the power acrros different branches of the government - the executive, the legislative and the judicial branches.

The Constitution, the diffferent branches of the federal government, as well as state and local governments, all contribute to the law.

The United States is divided into two sovereign governments - the federal government and the state governments - exercising the power granted to them from the people they govern. In other words, we live under a dual sovereignty. The U.S. Constitution divides the authority over the citizens between our national and state governments. This system is known as federalism.

The federal government and state governments do not exercise equal authority, though. The supreme law of the United States is:"Constitution, and the laws of the United States..." as the Article VI, Paragraph 2 of the U.S.Constitution states. This is known as the Supremacy Clause. The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution does state that "the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people." We are free to govern ourselves, then. State and local governments can govern and regulate their citizens. When a conflict occurs between a state and federal law and both posssess a jurisdiction, though, the federal law is controlling. State laws and state constitutions may not conflict with the U.S. Constitution. The division of power, then, between the federal and state governments is a vertical division with the federal government having the controlling authority.

The Constitution also created a horizontal division of power. The Constitution separates the federal government into three branches - the legislative branch, the executive branch and the judicial branch. No hierarchy exists between these branches of government. Each branch is autonomous from the other branches ahd shares equal authority with the other branches over U.S. citizens. This doctrine which prohibits one branch of government from infringing or enchroaching upon the authority and functioning of another branch is known as the separation of powers.

The U.S. Constitution splits the federal government into three branches:

map of USA in 1826
executive
The executive branch of the government, headed by the President of the United States and comprised of presidential appointees and administrative agencies, enforces the laws.

legislative
The legislative branch of the government, comprised of the U.S. Congress, makes the laws.

judicial
The judicial branch of the government, comprised of all the federal courts, has the duty to apply the laws in a fair and impartial manner.

Since all of the state constitutions are based on the federal constitution, our legal system proceeds as a two-level system, with each level separated into three branches. Therefore, as citizens, we are each governed by at least six different governing bodies - the three branches of the federal government and the three branches of our particular state government - not to mention any city or county governments. Although this system does not promote efficiency, it is considered our protection against tyranny. No one individual or group of people can force its will on us unchecked.

If you want to know more about the American Legal System check my pictorial links in the the right
column or follow the ones on the top and bottom of this page.

 
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Revised March 10th, 2001
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