As early as the third grade, children are taught the structure of the U.S. government, including our tripartite system and the relationship of each branch to the law. Yet few adults, except those directly involved in the judicial system -- such as lawyers and judges -- actually comprehend the intricacies of our unique system of government and its laws.
A survey commissioned by the Hearst Publishing Corporation 1 for the bicentennial of the adoption of the U.S. Constitution found that almost two thirds of the respondents wrongly believed the Constitution established English as the official language, and more than one fourth confused the purpose of the Constitution with the purpose of the Declaration of Independence. 2 In a 1990 national poll by The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, 3 63.7% of those interviewed said they did not feel the government would be violating free speech if it told everyone, including those who spoke Spanish, that English was the official language.
Information overload may be the culprit for some of the confusion and lack of knowledge about our system of government. For example, elementary and secondary school courses in U.S. government typically emphasize that federal and state legislators pass bills that become statutes once signed by the head of government or when a veto is overridden by the legislature, that state and federal courts interpret the laws, and that members of the executive branch are responsible for enforcing the laws. Yet in this day and age of administrative law and an occasional activist court, the concept of separation of powers may be a gross oversimplification of how the government functions in the real world.
When most individuals conceptualize law, they focus on statutory or constitutional law, ignoring the source of law that has had the greatest impact on our legal history -- common law. Administrative law is rarely mentioned and equity law is virtually unknown, except among legal experts. Yet these sources of law constitute "the law" as much as statutes do.
This chapter examines the sources and categories of U.S. law from the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights to equity. Traditional categories of law, such as civil versus