November 25, 2012 2:38 pm

If you wear socks on your ears, you won’t be punished. Crossing a street against a red light is another matter—it’s against the law. Laws are official rules made by governments. They keep peace and create order. When people break laws, their governments punish them.
Long ago, people lived only in small tribal groups. They lived together, followed the same traditions, and worshipped the same gods. There were no formal laws. Instead, people were guided by their customs, morals, and religion.
Over time, cities began to form. Laws became more formal and were written down in legal codes. In about 1750 bc, the king of Babylon created one of the first legal codes, the Code of Hammurabi. It listed certain crimes and told how they should be punished.
The ancient Romans helped shape our modern view of law. In the 600s bc, citizens of Rome wrote down all of their basic laws on twelve bronze tablets. The Romans declared that no citizen, not even the ruler, was above the law.
Modern law codes are rooted in the Roman system. Such law codes are statutory, meaning they are created and changed by legislatures, not by courts. They provide the main source of law in much of modern Europe, South America, and other places.
Another system of law took shape later in England. Before the 12th century ad, each part of England had its own rules and customs. From the 12th century onward, England became a single nation. The courts of the land made sure people followed a common set of customs—the English common law.
Unlike the Roman system of law, the common law was never written down in one place. Instead, the courts made decisions about the law based on earlier court decisions. Those decisions are called precedents. Each case must be decided in the same way as earlier cases. But if a case has some new aspects, the decision made will set a new precedent. That way, courts gradually change the law as society changes.
The system of law in the United States is a mixture of the statutory and common law systems. The U.S. Congress and state legislatures pass many statutory laws. But the common law remains important, too. American courts continue to make many legal decisions by precedent.
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