An Introduction to the Legal System
The word legal can mean different things to different people. To some lawyers it includes the entire body of legislation which regulates private transactions and private citizens’ activities under the state law. To others, it includes only certain specific areas of the body of law. For many people the word legal is associated with a profession, a code of ethics, and an established code of judicial conduct. Such people may be involved in one way or another with the formulation and implementation of legal procedures, although they are not lawyers by trade.
Law as a whole comprises a body of statutory rules of conduct having binding legal force and effect. Law as it relates to the United States was developed by statute through the efforts of Congress. Within United States law there are currently two main systems: common law and federal law. The common law system, which predates the Constitution, consists of the Treaties and the Court of Claims. The federal system, the Constitutional Law, consists of the U.S. Constitution, the Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Justice, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The Congress has the power to enact laws and to make rules that govern private citizens through its legislative process, the Senate and House of Representatives, and the executive branch through the executive branch appointments. To achieve this end, Congress generally passes bills (joint resolutions) proposing statutory changes that the President must sign. If the President refuses to sign, a bill is passed again the next session in the same form with a majority vote. If a bill is passed by both Houses, then the President has the choice of signing or vetoing the bill.
When a crime is committed, there are various legal consequences. Criminal laws provide the basis for prosecution by the criminal justice system and can include several different elements such as felonies, misdemeanors, violations of a regulatory law, corrupt practices, conspiracy, racketeering, etc. Criminal laws also cover trusts, corporate charters, educational services, financial institutions, tax frauds, witness or information and production of tangible records. The various branches of the legal system to enforce and interpret criminal laws to bring criminals to justice. Within our system of criminal justice, there are three branches: state and local government prosecutors, state and federal prosecutors, and appeals courts.
Unlike civil law, criminal law does not have a calendar, but rather relies on judgments rendered by judges and juries to define and apply legal standards and principles. As you can see from the foregoing discussion on the three branches of the legal system, there are two distinct types of criminal law: state and federal criminal law. Additionally, even though Congress has designated a number of judges to hear capital cases, state and local jurisdictions typically handle all criminal cases. Capital offenses are those involving murder, rape, arson, assault, drunk driving, embezzlement, fraud, conspiracy, solicitation, possession of drug paraphernalia, theft, fraudulent, perjury and solicitation.
Historically, the United States has had a mixed legal system, with much of its history based on the concept of natural rights, which are protected in today’s society through the Fifth and Sixth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, as well as due process rights. These amendments guarantee that persons are afforded the right to a fair trial and an impartial judge, who cannot be biased due to race, gender, religion or national origin. However, there is a high degree of complexity associated with interpreting and protecting these rights, particularly because of today’s view of unequal treatment of minorities, as well as the lack of real-time court reporting and instant messaging. Moreover, some of today’s more restrictive judicial rules and interpretations can create major difficulties for defendants facing serious criminal charges. While the use of jail cells has declined nationwide, the overly broad punishments prescribed by mandatory sentencing laws and overly complex judicial procedures can cause many people to abandon hope of going to trial. Ultimately, any system that cannot provide a meaningful degree of fairness and equality in the justice system will fail to provide a basis for the institution of justice itself.