In the United States, people are subject to the powers of several governmental units. Citizens must comply with federal, state and local laws - all at the same time. This lesson explores the definitions and differences between federal, state and local laws.
The United States legislative system uses the doctrine of federalism. Federalism means that citizens and visitors are subject to several governmental powers. In the U.S., federal, state and local governments all make laws. Generally speaking, each system of government has different responsibilities, though each system is working at the same time.
Our federal legislature, known as the United States Congress, makes federal laws. The federal laws are uniform in that they apply to all citizens and visitors of the United States, no matter which city or state that person is in. Everyone in the U.S. must follow the federal laws at all times. This works differently than state laws. State governments make laws so that they can manage the citizens and visitors of that particular state. Citizens, residents and visitors must follow these laws. Visitors must follow the laws of a particular state, but only while visiting that state. Local governments, such as counties and cities, also make laws so that they can manage the citizens and visitors of those particular areas. Citizens, residents and visitors must follow these laws. Visitors must follow the laws of a particular city, but only while visiting that city.
For example, the Oklahoma legislature has the power to make laws to govern the citizens and residents of Oklahoma. The laws of Oklahoma also apply to visitors while they are in Oklahoma, but these laws don't apply to citizens and residents of Arkansas if those people are not visiting Oklahoma. Let's say I'm a resident of Tulsa, OK. I'm subject to the laws of Tulsa, of Oklahoma and of the United States - all at the same time. I'm required to pay taxes to all three governments.
Keep in mind that Oklahoma can't enforce laws that conflict with the United States Constitution or any federal laws made in furtherance of the Constitution. The Constitution's supremacy clause tells us that federal laws take priority over state laws as long as the federal laws are made in pursuance of the Constitution. When the two conflict, the federal law will trump the state law. Most state constitutions also include a supremacy clause, so that state laws will take priority over city ordinances. A hierarchy is formed, with federal laws sitting at the top of the hierarchy and local laws sitting at the bottom of the hierarchy.
Federal Laws and Regulations
Federal laws are rules that are passed by the federal government and enforced by the United States governmental agencies. These laws include constitutional issues, federal statutes and federal regulations. Our United States Congress makes and passes federal laws. These federal laws are known as statutes. Statutes are laws that are enacted by a legislative body. Federal laws are somewhat limited, though they may be civil or criminal. The U.S. government can only regulate certain areas, as specified in Article I of the United States Constitution. Other issues are left to state or local regulation.
Federal civil laws regulate national and international issues and issues between the states. These laws govern things like immigration, the armed forces and our federal courts. Federal criminal laws include issues like counterfeiting, bank robbery, tax evasion and trafficking controlled substances across state lines. Federal courts have the exclusive right to manage federal laws. For example, let's say John files for bankruptcy. Even though John is a resident of Kansas, his bankruptcy case will be heard in a federal bankruptcy court because bankruptcy is a federal issue.
Federal regulations are a form of federal law. Regulations are rules that are enacted by Congress. Regulations are enforceable laws, just like statutes. Regulations are often contained within a legislative act, like the Clean Air Act or the Civil Rights Act. Our federal government is made up of numerous regulatory agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, known as the EPA, and the Securities and Exchange Commission, known as the SEC. The agencies are each authorized to enforce certain regulations. Agencies can penalize people or companies that violate regulations. Penalties can include fines, sanctions and even jail time. Agency decisions can sometimes make new federal law by narrowing the interpretation of a regulation or by expanding the meaning of a term.
State laws are rules that are passed and enforced by a particular state. Each state has its own state legislature, system of laws and court system. State governments can legislate any area that is not strictly reserved to the federal government through Article I of the Constitution. This means that statutes made by state governments usually cover a broader range of issues. State laws include both civil and criminal issues. For example, family law is usually a state civil law issue. This includes marriage, divorce and adoption. State criminal cases include crimes like robbery, assault and possession of a controlled substance. State court systems administer their own state laws. For example, let's say Bert violates a Montana statute by leaving a restaurant without paying his bill. Bert will be charged with a crime by the State of Montana, and his criminal case will be heard in a Montana state court.
Counties and municipalities, like cities and towns, are responsible for making local laws so that they can manage their local areas. Local laws are generally known as ordinances. Ordinances normally include things like parking regulations and housing codes. City court systems administer their own city laws. For example, let's say Cindy leaves her barking dog outside all night long at her home in Colorado Springs. Her neighbors complain, and Cindy receives a ticket from a Colorado Springs police officer. Cindy will be required to appear in a Colorado Springs court to address the ticket.
Let's review. In the U.S., people are subject to a variety of laws made by city, county, state and federal governments. Different types of law are administered by different systems of law. These laws are part of a hierarchy. Federal laws are rules that apply to everyone throughout the United States and exist at the top of the hierarchy. State laws apply to people who are citizens, residents or visitors to that particular state. Local ordinances apply to people who are citizens, residents or visitors to that particular county or city. Local ordinances exist at the bottom of the hierarchy. All three types of laws, all at the same time, govern people in the U.S.
Upon completion of this lesson, you should be ready to:
- Define federalism and the supremacy clause
- Explain the differences between federal, state and local laws
- Understand how the hierarchy of laws applies to citizens