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Understanding the Language of the American Federal Legal System

Editor’s Note: This is an updated version of a similar article published in November of 2015. To view the original, click here.

Americans take great pride in saying that ours is a nation of laws, not people. But resting on this laurel is dangerous. Laws are written, enacted, interpreted, changed, and enforced (or not) by people. To safeguard our legal legacy, we need to have at least a basic understanding of the American federal legal system. Including, how to identify laws, where to find them, how to access them, and what they consist of.

For example, there are currently more than 13,800 Executive Orders, all numbered sequentially, starting from Abraham Lincoln’s first term and going forward from there. All are identified by a single name and number, and it is clear which have been revoked, suspended, or expired. With the help of artificial intelligence (AI) and/or machine learning (ML), we can quickly aggregate them, giving easy access to both the general public and professionals.

american federal legal system

By comparison, the American federal legal system has laws that are convoluted, inexact, and imprecise. It’s a mess. It’s hard to think that AI and ML can be of any meaningful help given an almost total lack of inference, consistency, probabilities, and source material. So, for now, we continue to slog.

The Inner Workings of the American Federal Legal System

How many U.S. laws are there in the American federal legal system? No one knows! (…and that is astounding!) Some have estimated that there are about 20,000, based on the average number of laws passed in each session of Congress since 1789, but this remains an unproven hypothesis. If “what gets measured gets managed,” as the meme goes, then our system of laws goes unmanaged.

There are four kinds of Federal law: public law, private law, joint resolutions, and common law (or case law), which originate in the judicial system, interpret existing Acts of Congress, and set precedents.

[Editor’s Note: Read about an ongoing Federal Court case in “The Saga of Oracle and Google in Layman’s Terms (Hopefully)”]

Public Law

A public law applies generally to the public at large. Public laws often come into public view through the courts, in Congress and the media. They include, but are not limited to, constitutional, administrative, tax, criminal, and procedural law.

Private Law

Broadly speaking, a private law is concerned with private individuals, property, and relationships. They almost never come to the public’s attention and, in fact, many law firms do not aggregate them. Most prefer to stay focused on users’ needs rather than irrelevant data.

Joint Resolution

Most importantly, Congress issues Joint Resolutions to declare war and amend the Constitution. Otherwise, joint resolutions authorize small appropriations, continuing resolutions, and other minor procedural and temporary measures. Congress designates joint resolutions as public laws They are enacted similarly to public laws and carry the force of law, further confusing the legal nomenclature. Congress issues lots of joint resolutions, but they only rarely rise to the level of broad public interest.

Common Law

Common law (aka “case law”) is a function of the U.S. judiciary system, separate from Congress but integral to it. Important common law decisions are called “landmarks” that significantly affect existing laws. Landmark decisions most often are made by the U.S. Supreme Court.

How Are Laws Named?

This gets complicated. In the American federal legal system, each type of law (public law, private law, joint resolution, common law) requires a very specific, formulaic name, including both a long title and short title.

1) Long Title

In most cases, a law is given a Long Title. This can often run to a full paragraph, and Long Titles are rarely cited by members of Congress, lawyers, judges or the media. While almost never used, this is the law’s official name.

…and for Other Purposes

This ubiquitous phrase is commonly tacked on to the end of a law’s Long Title. It means that other laws, sometimes completely unrelated, may be patched into that law. While the reasons for this strange practice are not spelled out, it typically allows legislators to do some horse trading (“I’ll vote for your bill if you add mine to it.”) The Affordable Care Act is a good example. It is home to at least four other major pieces of legislation, which means that all five laws have the same public law number (Sheesh!). Thus, legislators give themselves flexibility to horse trade, but at the cost of further muddying the legal landscape.

2) Short Title

Most laws in the American federal legal system include a Short Title that may be cited (or it may not!). As a consequence, a single law can go by several names. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is a good example. It is also called the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) and is also referred to as “Obamacare”. This has led to confusion among large segments of the public. When reporters randomly interviewed people on the street, many reacted with disbelief that Obamacare and the ACA are one and the same. Some of this confusion is a natural reaction to confusing nomenclature, but often it is the result of willful disinformation.

[Editors’ Note: If you want to learn about how these laws actually move through Federal Courts, listen to our “Federal Rules of Civil Procedure Refresher” webinar]

A Better Roadmap

The American federal legal system needs to clarify and simplify access and bring transparency to the process, but until that happens, firms like Govlish have been designed with ushering the public into the system as easily as possible by:

  1. Setting Acts of Congress and common law apart in their own datasets so that users can easily find them among the more than 95,000 elements currently in the Govlish Federal database
  2. Organizing a law’s most commonly used acronym or abbreviation, which is most often what the public is looking for. This is followed by the law’s most commonly used Short Title, including the year it was enacted.
  3. Adding a few important facts in as few words as possible, including aka’s, if the law was repealed, and a brief description if the law’s Title is vague.
  4. Providing either the law’s Public Law or Statutes at Large code.
  5. Providing pronunciations where an acronym or abbreviation is said as a word rather than its individual letters. In face-to-face encounters, both formal and informal, users should not have to ask, “What’s a foy-ah?” and sound like the village idiot. (Foy-uh=Freedom of Information Act.)

It’s a slog, full of inconsistencies, unknowns, gaps, and obscurities, but a legal degree isn’t necessarily required anymore for access and understanding.

There you have it—an expert short course on how to outsmart the barriers to accessing laws. While it is possible to learn what, discovering why is much more complex, often the result of barriers constructed from almost 230 years of piling up laws upon laws, political maneuvering, and bureaucrats designing systems for the benefit of bureaucrats, not citizens.

As you can see, aggregating the American federal legal system is no easy task. It’s a slog, full of inconsistencies, unknowns, gaps, and obscurities, but a legal degree isn’t necessarily required anymore for access and understanding. However, laws are at the bedrock of our democracy and way of life, and the ability to easily, quickly, and accurately access them is key to engaging both average citizens and professionals.

About Robert Mander

Bob Mander, founder of www.Govlish.com, spent much of his career dealing with mind-bending government acronyms like OSDBU, LORACS and SME.  A technical writer of government documents for 15 years, Mander also had a ‘big idea’ about how to demystify this kind of insider jargon. Over the years, he’s assembled what he calls a resource library…

Read Full Bio »   •   View all articles by Robert »

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