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The Law Portal

Lady Justice, often used as a personification of the law, holding a sword in one hand and scales in the other.

Law is a set of rules that are created and are enforceable by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior, with its precise definition a matter of longstanding debate. It has been variously described as a science and as the art of justice. State-enforced laws can be made by a group legislature or by a single legislator, resulting in statutes; by the executive through decrees and regulations; or established by judges through precedent, usually in common law jurisdictions. Private individuals may create legally binding contracts, including arbitration agreements that adopt alternative ways of resolving disputes to standard court litigation. The creation of laws themselves may be influenced by a constitution, written or tacit, and the rights encoded therein. The law shapes politics, economics, history and society in various ways and also serves as a mediator of relations between people.

Legal systems vary between jurisdictions, with their differences analysed in comparative law. In civil law jurisdictions, a legislature or other central body codifies and consolidates the law. In common law systems, judges may make binding case law through precedent, although on occasion this may be overturned by a higher court or the legislature. Historically, religious law has influenced secular matters and is, as of the 21st century, still in use in some religious communities. Sharia law based on Islamic principles is used as the primary legal system in several countries, including Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The scope of law can be divided into two domains. Public law concerns government and society, including constitutional law, administrative law, and criminal law. Private law deals with legal disputes between individuals and/or organisations in areas such as contracts, property, torts/delicts and commercial law. This distinction is stronger in civil law countries, particularly those with a separate system of administrative courts; by contrast, the public-private law divide is less pronounced in common law jurisdictions. (Full article...)

Selected article

The image is a scan of the cover of a book, which is labelled "The Virginia and Kentucky resolutions of 1798 and '99 with Jefferson's original draught [sic] thereof. Also, Madison's report, Calhoun's address, resolutions of the several states in relation to state rights. With other documents in support of the Jeffersonian doctrines of '98. 'Liberty—The Constitution—Unios.' Published by Jonathan Elliot. Washington: May MDCCCXXXII"

The Report of 1800 was a resolution drafted by James Madison arguing for the sovereignty of the individual states under the United States Constitution and against the Alien and Sedition Acts. Adopted by the Virginia General Assembly in January 1800, the Report amends arguments from the 1798 Virginia Resolutions and attempts to resolve contemporary criticisms against the Resolutions. The Report was the last important explication of the Constitution produced before the 1817 Bonus Bill veto message by Madison, who has come to be regarded as the "Father of the Constitution."

The arguments made in the Resolutions and the Report were later used frequently during the nullification crisis of 1832, when South Carolina declared federal tariffs to be unconstitutional and void within the state. Madison rejected the concept of nullification and the notion that his arguments supported such a practice. Whether Madison's theory of Republicanism really supported the nullification movement, and more broadly whether the ideas he expressed between 1798 and 1800 are consistent with his work before and after this period, are the main questions surrounding the Report in the modern literature. (Full article...)

Selected biography

Assata Olugbala Shakur (born JoAnne Deborah Byron; July 16, 1947) is an American political activist who was a member of the Black Liberation Army (BLA). In 1977, she was convicted in the first-degree murder of State Trooper Werner Foerster during a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike in 1973. She escaped from prison in 1979 and is currently wanted by the FBI, with a $1 million FBI reward for information leading to her capture, and an additional $1 million reward offered by the Attorney General of New Jersey.

Born in Flushing, Queens, she grew up in New York City and Wilmington, North Carolina. After she ran away from home several times, her aunt, who would later act as one of her lawyers, took her in. She became involved in political activism at Borough of Manhattan Community College and City College of New York. After graduation, she began using the name Assata Shakur, and briefly joined the Black Panther Party. She then joined the BLA, a loosely knit offshoot of the Black Panthers, which engaged in an armed struggle against the US government through tactics such as robbing banks and killing police officers and drug dealers.

Between 1971 and 1973, she was charged with several crimes and was the subject of a multi-state manhunt. In May 1973, Shakur was arrested after being wounded in a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike. Also involved in the shootout were New Jersey State Troopers Werner Foerster and James Harper and BLA members Sundiata Acoli and Zayd Malik Shakur. State Trooper Harper was wounded; Zayd Shakur was killed; State Trooper Foerster was killed. Between 1973 and 1977, Shakur was charged with murder, attempted murder, armed robbery, bank robbery, and kidnapping in relation to the shootout and six other incidents. She was acquitted on three of the charges and three were dismissed. In 1977, she was convicted of the murder of State Trooper Foerster and of seven other felonies related to the 1973 shootout. Her defense had argued medical evidence suggested her innocence since her arm was damaged in the shootout.

While serving a life sentence for murder, Shakur escaped in 1979, with assistance from the BLA and members of the May 19 Communist Organization, from the Clinton Correctional Facility for Women in Union Township, NJ, now the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women. She surfaced in Cuba in 1984, where she was granted political asylum. Shakur has lived in Cuba since, despite US government efforts to have her returned. She has been on the FBI Most Wanted Terrorists list since 2013 as Joanne Deborah Chesimard and was the first woman to be added to this list. (Full article...)

Selected statute

A statute is a formal written enactment of a legislative authority that governs the legal entities of a city, state, or country by way of consent. Typically, statutes command or prohibit something, or declare policy. Statutes are rules made by legislative bodies; they are distinguished from case law or precedent, which is decided by courts, and regulations issued by government agencies. (Full article...)


Painting of a heavyset royal.

The Statute of Uses (27 Hen 8 c 10 — enacted in 1536) was an Act of the Parliament of England that restricted the application of uses in English property law. The Statute ended the practice of creating uses in real property by changing the purely equitable title of beneficiaries of a use into absolute ownership with the right of seisin (possession).

The Statute was conceived by Henry VIII of England as a way to rectify his financial problems by simplifying the law of uses, which moved land outside the royal tax revenue (i.e., through royal fees called feudal incidents), traditionally imposed through seisin. At the time, land could not be passed by a will, and when it devolved to the heir upon death was subject to taxes. Hence, the practice evolved of landowners creating a use of the land to enable it to pass to someone other than their legal heir upon their death, or simply to try and reduce the incidence of taxation. (Full article...)

Did you know...

  • ... that although Elizabeth Richards Tilton (pictured) was a central figure in a six-month-long trial, she was never allowed to speak in court?

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Selected case

Case law, also used interchangeably with common law, is law that is based on precedents, that is the judicial decisions from previous cases, rather than law based on constitutions, statutes, or regulations. Case law uses the detailed facts of a legal case that have been resolved by courts or similar tribunals. These past decisions are called "case law", or precedent. Stare decisis—a Latin phrase meaning "let the decision stand"—is the principle by which judges are bound to such past decisions, drawing on established judicial authority to formulate their positions. (Full article...)


Two men dressed in suits are surrounded by people holding signs.

The Smith Act trials of Communist Party leaders in New York City from 1949 to 1958 were the result of US federal government prosecutions in the postwar period and during the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. Leaders of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) were accused of violating the Smith Act, a statute that prohibited advocating violent overthrow of the government. The defendants argued that they advocated a peaceful transition to socialism, and that the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech and of association protected their membership in a political party. Appeals from these trials reached the US Supreme Court, which ruled on issues in Dennis v. United States (1951) and Yates v. United States (1957).

The first trial of eleven communist leaders was held in New York in 1949; it was one of the lengthiest trials in United States history. Numerous supporters of the defendants protested outside the courthouse on a daily basis. The trial was featured twice on the cover of Time magazine. The defense frequently antagonized the judge and prosecution; five defendants were jailed for contempt of court because they disrupted the proceedings. The prosecution's case relied on undercover informants, who described the goals of the CPUSA, interpreted communist texts, and testified of their own knowledge that the CPUSA advocated the violent overthrow of the US government.

While the first trial was under way, events outside the courtroom influenced public perception of communism: the Soviet Union tested its first nuclear weapon, and communists prevailed in the Chinese Civil War. In this period, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had also begun conducting investigations and hearings of writers and producers in Hollywood suspected of communist influence. Public opinion was overwhelmingly against the defendants in New York. After a 10-month trial, the jury found all 11 defendants guilty. The judge sentenced them to terms of up to five years in federal prison, and sentenced all five defense attorneys to imprisonment for contempt of court. Two of the attorneys were subsequently disbarred. (Full article...)

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