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1.3 Basic Concepts and Categories of US Positive Law

Learning Objectives

  1. In a general way, differentiate contract law from tort law.
  2. Consider the role of law in supporting ethical norms in our society.
  3. Understand the differing roles of state law and federal law in the US legal system.
  4. Know the difference between criminal cases and civil cases.

Most of what we discuss in this book is positive law—US positive law in particular. We will also consider the laws and legal systems of other nations. But first, it will be useful to cover some basic concepts and distinctions.

Law: The Moral Minimums in a Democratic Society

The law does not correct (or claim to correct) every wrong that occurs in society. At a minimum, it aims to curb the worst kind of wrongs, the kinds of wrongs that violate what might be called the “moral minimums” that a community demands of its members. These include not only violations of criminal law (see Chapter 6 "Criminal Law") but also torts (see Chapter 7 "Introduction to Tort Law") and broken promises (see Chapter 8 "Introduction to Contract Law"). Thus it may be wrong to refuse to return a phone call from a friend, but that wrong will not result in a viable lawsuit against you. But if a phone (or the Internet) is used to libel or slander someone, a tort has been committed, and the law may allow the defamed person to be compensated.

There is a strong association between what we generally think of as ethical behavior and what the laws require and provide. For example, contract law upholds society’s sense that promises—in general—should be kept. Promise-breaking is seen as unethical. The law provides remedies for broken promises (in breach of contract cases) but not for all broken promises; some excuses are accepted when it would be reasonable to do so. For tort law, harming others is considered unethical. If people are not restrained by law from harming one another, orderly society would be undone, leading to anarchy. Tort law provides for compensation when serious injuries or harms occur. As for property law issues, we generally believe that private ownership of property is socially useful and generally desirable, and it is generally protected (with some exceptions) by laws. You can’t throw a party at my house without my permission, but my right to do whatever I want on my own property may be limited by law; I can’t, without the public’s permission, operate an incinerator on my property and burn heavy metals, as toxic ash may be deposited throughout the neighborhood.

The Common Law: Property, Torts, and Contracts

Even before legislatures met to make rules for society, disputes happened and judges decided them. In England, judges began writing down the facts of a case and the reasons for their decision. They often resorted to deciding cases on the basis of prior written decisions. In relying on those prior decisions, the judge would reason that since a current case was pretty much like a prior case, it ought to be decided the same way. This is essentially reasoning by analogy. Thus the use of precedentA prior judicial decision that is either binding or persuasive, and as such, provides a rule useful in making a decision in the case at hand. in common-law cases came into being, and a doctrine of stare decisisLatin, for “let the decision stand.” By keeping within the rule of a prior judicial decision, a court follows “precedent” by letting the prior decision govern the result in the case at hand. (pronounced STAR-ay-de-SIGH-sus) became accepted in English courts. Stare decisis means, in Latin, “let the decision stand.”

Most judicial decisions that don’t apply legislative acts (known as statutes) will involve one of three areas of law—property, contract, or tort. Property law deals with the rights and duties of those who can legally own land (real property), how that ownership can be legally confirmed and protected, how property can be bought and sold, what the rights of tenants (renters) are, and what the various kinds of “estates” in land are (e.g., fee simple, life estate, future interest, easements, or rights of way). Contract law deals with what kinds of promises courts should enforce. For example, should courts enforce a contract where one of the parties was intoxicated, underage, or insane? Should courts enforce a contract where one of the parties seemed to have an unfair advantage? What kind of contracts would have to be in writing to be enforced by courts? Tort law deals with the types of cases that involve some kind of harm and or injury between the plaintiff and the defendant when no contract exists. Thus if you are libeled or a competitor lies about your product, your remedy would be in tort, not contract.

The thirteen original colonies had been using English common law for many years, and they continued to do so after independence from England. Early cases from the first states are full of references to already-decided English cases. As years went by, many precedents were established by US state courts, so that today a judicial opinion that refers to a seventeenth- or eighteenth-century English common-law case is quite rare.

Courts in one state may look to common-law decisions from the courts of other states where the reasoning in a similar case is persuasive. This will happen in “cases of first impression,” a fact pattern or situation that the courts in one state have never seen before. But if the supreme court in a particular state has already ruled on a certain kind of case, lower courts in that state will always follow the rule set forth by their highest court.

State Courts and the Domain of State Law

In the early years of our nation, federal courts were not as active or important as state courts. States had jurisdiction (the power to make and enforce laws) over the most important aspects of business life. The power of state law has historically included governing the following kinds of issues and claims:

  • Contracts, including sales, commercial paper, letters of credit, and secured transactions
  • Torts
  • Property, including real property, bailments of personal property (such as when you check your coat at a theater or leave your clothes with a dry cleaner), trademarks, copyrights, and the estates of decedents (dead people)
  • Corporations
  • Partnerships
  • Domestic matters, including marriage, divorce, custody, adoption, and visitation
  • Securities law
  • Environmental law
  • Agency law, governing the relationship between principals and their agents.
  • Banking
  • Insurance

Over the past eighty years, however, federal law has become increasingly important in many of these areas, including banking, securities, and environmental law.

Civil versus Criminal Cases

Most of the cases we will look at in this textbook are civil cases. Criminal cases are certainly of interest to business, especially as companies may break criminal laws. A criminal case involves a governmental decision—whether state or federal—to prosecute someone (named as a defendant) for violating society’s laws. The law establishes a moral minimum and does so especially in the area of criminal laws; if you break a criminal law, you can lose your freedom (in jail) or your life (if you are convicted of a capital offense). In a civil action, you would not be sent to prison; in the worst case, you can lose property (usually money or other assets), such as when Ford Motor Company lost a personal injury case and the judge awarded $295 million to the plaintiffs or when Pennzoil won a $10.54 billion verdict against Texaco (see Chapter 7 "Introduction to Tort Law").

Some of the basic differences between civil lawIn contrast to criminal law, the law that governs noncriminal disputes, such as in lawsuits (as opposed to prosecutions) over contract disputes and tort claims. In contrast to common law, civil law is part of the continental European tradition dating back to Roman law. and criminal lawThat body of law in any nation-state that defines offenses against society as a whole, punishable by fines, forfeitures, or imprisonment. cases are illustrated in Table 1.1 "Differences between Civil and Criminal Cases".

Table 1.1 Differences between Civil and Criminal Cases

Civil Cases Criminal Cases
Parties Plaintiff brings case; defendant must answer or lose by default Prosecutor brings case; defendant may remain silent
Proof Preponderance of evidence Beyond a reasonable doubt
Reason To settle disputes peacefully, usually between private parties To maintain order in society
To punish the most blameworthy
To deter serious wrongdoing
Remedies Money damages (legal remedy) Fines, jail, and forfeitures
Injunctions (equitable remedy)
Specific performance (equity)

Regarding plaintiffs and prosecutors, you can often tell a civil case from a criminal case by looking at the caption of a case going to trial. If the government appears first in the caption of the case (e.g., U.S. v. Lieberman, it is likely that the United States is prosecuting on behalf of the people. The same is true of cases prosecuted by state district attorneys (e.g., State v. Seidel). But this is not a foolproof formula. Governments will also bring civil actions to collect debts from or settle disputes with individuals, corporations, or other governments. Thus U.S. v. Mayer might be a collection action for unpaid taxes, or U.S. v. Canada might be a boundary dispute in the International Court of Justice. Governments can be sued, as well; people occasionally sue their state or federal government, but they can only get a trial if the government waives its sovereign immunity and allows such suits. Warner v. U.S., for example, could be a claim for a tax refund wrongfully withheld or for damage caused to the Warner residence by a sonic boom from a US Air Force jet flying overhead.

Substance versus Procedure

Many rules and regulations in law are substantive, and others are procedural. We are used to seeing laws as substantive; that is, there is some rule of conduct or behavior that is called for or some action that is proscribed (prohibited). The substantive rules tell us how to act with one another and with the government. For example, all of the following are substantive rules of law and provide a kind of command or direction to citizens:

  • Drive not more than fifty-five miles per hour where that speed limit is posted.
  • Do not conspire to fix prices with competitors in the US market.
  • Do not falsely represent the curative effects of your over-the-counter herbal remedy.
  • Do not drive your motor vehicle through an intersection while a red traffic signal faces the direction you are coming from.
  • Do not discriminate against job applicants or employees on the basis of their race, sex, religion, or national origin.
  • Do not discharge certain pollutants into the river without first getting a discharge permit.

In contrast, procedural laws are the rules of courts and administrative agencies. They tell us how to proceed if there is a substantive-law problem. For example, if you drive fifty-three miles per hour in a forty mile-per-hour zone on Main Street on a Saturday night and get a ticket, you have broken a substantive rule of law (the posted speed limit). Just how and what gets decided in court is a matter of procedural law. Is the police officer’s word final, or do you get your say before a judge? If so, who goes first, you or the officer? Do you have the right to be represented by legal counsel? Does the hearing or trial have to take place within a certain time period? A week? A month? How long can the state take to bring its case? What kinds of evidence will be relevant? Radar? (Does it matter what kind of training the officer has had on the radar device? Whether the radar device had been tested adequately?) The officer’s personal observation? (What kind of training has he had, how is he qualified to judge the speed of a car, and other questions arise.) What if you unwisely bragged to a friend at a party recently that you went a hundred miles an hour on Main Street five years ago at half past three on a Tuesday morning? (If the prosecutor knows of this and the “friend” is willing to testify, is it relevant to the charge of fifty-three in a forty-mile-per-hour zone?)

In the United States, all state procedural laws must be fair, since the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment directs that no state shall deprive any citizen of “life, liberty, or property,” without due process of law. (The $200 fine plus court costs is designed to deprive you of property, that is, money, if you violate the speed limit.) Federal laws must also be fair, because the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution has the exact same due process language as the Fourteenth Amendment. This suggests that some laws are more powerful or important than others, which is true. The next section looks at various types of positive law and their relative importance.

Key Takeaway

In most legal systems, like that in the United States, there is a fairly firm distinction between criminal law (for actions that are offenses against the entire society) and civil law (usually for disputes between individuals or corporations). Basic ethical norms for promise-keeping and not harming others are reflected in the civil law of contracts and torts. In the United States, both the states and the federal government have roles to play, and sometimes these roles will overlap, as in environmental standards set by both states and the federal government.

Exercises

  1. Jenna gets a ticket for careless driving after the police come to investigate a car accident she had with you on Hanover Boulevard. Your car is badly damaged through no fault of your own. Is Jenna likely to face criminal charges, civil charges, or both?
  2. Jenna’s ticket says that she has thirty days in which to respond to the charges against her. The thirty days conforms to a state law that sets this time limit. Is the thirty-day limit procedural law or substantive law?