Judicial History - Laws

The history of laws is largely a study of social mores. Each society defines whether certain conduct is tolerable or not. Rules about behavior are, for the most part, socially enforced customs, such as what is acceptable clothing. Laws tend to be written rules, but they are generally based on unwritten custom and tradition, as well as on written precedent. A serious crime in one culture is not an offense in another, for instance, bigamy. Laws also codify appropriate punishment for those convicted of an offense. The punishment was a death sentence for even the smallest offense in ancient Athens at a particular period of history. The person who wrote down these harsh laws was named Draco, and the term "draconian punishment" refers to particularly unmerciful consequences for minor infractions.

Historical pictures show that many laws began as religious practices and restrictions, such as Moses teaching the Ten Commandments. Many religious proscriptions set forth in the Torah and the Bible remain in the legal system today. Similarly, in the Middle Ages, tenets of Islam contributed to European jurisprudence, particularly in financial areas such as debt. In referencing "laws of nature and of nature's God," the American Declaration of Independence rooted its new ideas in the established legal tradition of religious underpinnings.

In early societies, the ruler or chieftain probably decreed most laws, based on the group's traditions as well as on personal judgment. The first known codification was by King Hammurabi, who ordered the laws of Babylon to be carved into stone steles for display across the ancient kingdom. Another legal history milestone portrayed in historical pictures was the codification of Roman law by Emperor Justinian in the sixth century AD after the Eastern Roman Empire had separated from ancient Rome. In 1804 the Code of Napoleon influenced countries of western Europe that resulted from the Napoleonic Wars. The Napoleonic Code established freedom of religion and abolished many privileges of birth, replacing laws dating from feudalism with more democratic tenets of the French Revolution. The new system also unified French law, which previously included a patchwork of local customs and had supported the special legal status of European nobility and monarchy.

In 1215 in England the Magna Carta was endorsed by King John, under pressure from powerful barons and clergymen, as seen in historical pictures. This established a precedent that led to increased power of the English Parliament to determine the limits of authority of the British monarchy. Eventually it became the right of the legislature to enact laws with little royal influence, and absolute monarchy is no longer an option for lawmaking in most of the world. The principle of entrusting lawmaking power to a representative legislature was fundamental to the framers of the US Constitution. In the American system, a law must be passed by both houses of the US Congress, signed by the president, and if challenged in the judicial system, must be upheld by the US Supreme Court as consistent with the Constitution, or the law is not enforceable, thus adding judicial review to the formation of laws.

In the US, important legal modifications have occurred in the form of Constitutional Amendments which most importantly deal with citizens' rights, or civil rights, such as who can vote, as shown in historical pictures. Another important civil rights document was the Emancipation Proclamation, written by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, which granted freedom to slaves in rebel states. In the South, many black slaves crossed into territory held by the Union Army to achieve the status of freemen immediately, as seen in historical pictures. Also during the 19th century, significant reform laws were enacted to protect workers and the welfare of children, and to inhibit the power of capitalists known as the robber barons through antitrust legislation. In addition, new land-use legislation led to distribution of public lands for use by the railroads and in land grants to homesteaders to encourage settlement of the west. In a similar spirit, laws for the first time were enacted to conserve some wild areas as national parks, as seen in photographs and historical illustrations.

While most laws stem in a general way from a society's traditions, English common law is specifically based on precedent, accumulated in a huge number of prior legal cases. Precedent is also important in specialized legal situations such as commercial law and maritime law. In the first instance, merchants have had unusual legal standing since the Middle Ages when they operated largely outside the feudal system. In the case of maritime law, as seen in historical pictures, ships at sea were "ruled" by the captain and developed a parallel but unique set of rules appropriate to the need for order in a hazardous ocean environment, operating long distances from governments or police. Pirates and other lawbreakers at sea had to be dealt with immediately for the safety of all. Similarly, lawlessness on the frontier required action in the absence of local law enforcement. The police function was often undertaken by civilians, at the risk of creating mob justice and its attendant disorder, disregard for legal procedure, and injustice.


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