One of the reasons law can be a confusing area of study is that there is a variety of sources which are always in the midst of creating and interpreting "the law." The United States Supreme Court makes the news when a new ruling is handed down; congressional debate on new laws is followed closely, particularly when the president has indicated interest in the issue. However, these two highly visible sources of law are the proverbial "tip of the iceberg" when discussing the broader structure responsible for creating, interpreting, and enforcing the law. Before the subject of marine law can be discussed in detail, it is important to understand how these sources of law operate.
What is "law"? A rough definition is a rule of conduct, adopted by a legislative body or court with the authority to do so, enforced by the appropriate governmental authority. It can be as simple as a no parking ordinance for the town wharf or as complex as the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 adopted by Congress. Although some critics of the legal system might argue that we have laws only to keep lawyers employed, there are a number of important functions to remember. First, laws serve as a guide for what is "acceptable behavior" in our society. The fact that sanctions (like prison) await those who violate those standards is an incentive to help people make the right decision. Second, we turn to law to resolve disputes, both public (criminal) and private (civil). If a set of facts indicates that a rule of conduct has been violated, the appropriate sanction can be selected and applied.
The United States Constitution establishes the system of governance in our country and the methods for adopting and enforcing the law. The three branches of government (legislative, executive, judicial) all play an important role in the legal system. Congress, best known for passing new laws, also performs a less glamorous, but critical function: through the complex committee system, it uses its "oversight" authority to review the effectiveness of existing legislation. Hearings on specific issues are scheduled by committees of Congress either because of new developments in an area of law that merit attention or because a law has a so-called "sunset" provision and will expire unless it is specifically reauthorized by Congress. Issues of