Federal law: the expanding web

Note: This is the third of five blog posts devoted to Module 2 of my business law summer course (Tiger King edition).

Previously, we introduced F. W. Maitland’s beautiful metaphor of law as a seamless web, and we briefly examined the center of this organic and interconnected network: State and local law. Now, let’s turn our attention to Part C of Module 2, which is devoted to the dominant bulk of our vast and complex legal system, the ever-expanding domain of federal law.

The problem is, federal law has grown into an ugly monster, an unruly beast. The actual number of federal laws, let alone federal regulations, is so large that no one knows for certain the total number of extant federal crimes! By way of example, when the corpus of federal laws was first codified in 1927, all the laws that the Congress had enacted could fit into a single volume. By the 1980s, however, the United States Code had expanded to 50 separate volumes containing over 3000 separate federal crimes. And today? According to @CrimeADay (a popular legal Twitter account devoted to keeping this tally), no one knows for sure. So, how could I possibly tame this massive federal legal beast?

Here is where the Tiger King theme comes in handy! Tiger King allowed me to focus on just one small corner of this ever-expanding federal legal universe–namely, those laws specifically dealing with the animal kingdom. As a result, Part C contains excerpts from the Endangered Species Act of 1973; including a presidential executive order implementing this landmark law; excerpts from Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, a controversial Supreme Court case deciding whether private parties could sue to enforce the Endangered Species Act; and a Cornell Law School link for the entry to the “Standing Doctrine.” In addition, Part C contains four homemade videos on various aspects of federal law as well as two timely items: (1) a link to a Twitter account called “A Crime a Day” (@CrimeADay), and (2) a copy of a recent newspaper report of President Trump signing the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act into law.

My first of four videos on federal law explains the fundamental constitutional principle of federalism, the idea that government power is divided between two levels of government in the United States: the States and the Feds. In theory, at least, the powers of the federal government are supposed to be, in the words of James Madison, “few and well-defined”, while the States retain a general “police power” to protect the health, safety, and welfare of their residents.

My second video on federal law poses a timely and controversial legal question, is the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act constitutional? Although this law was recently enacted with broad bipartisan support and signed by President Trump into law, does the Congress really have the power to make animal cruelty a federal crime? I then discuss the power of Congress to regulate interstate, tribal, and foreign commerce under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, probably the single-most important power that Congress possesses under the Constitution.

My third video on federal law introduces the Endangered Species Act of 1973, one of several historic federal laws that are supposed to protect wildlife. I then pose another important question: can you sue the government when it fails to comply with its own laws? And I introduce the case of Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, a landmark case that involves this very question. My fourth and last video on federal law explains how the Lujan case played out–how SCOTUS used the so-called “standing doctrine” to give the federal government immunity from its own laws.

Briefly, in order to sue the government to enforce its own laws, the plaintiff (the party who is bringing the lawsuit) must first have “standing to sue”, and to have standing, the plaintiff will have to show that he or she suffered or is about to suffer a concrete injury and that the injury is “redressable” by the courts. I then introduce my students to the two most common types of legal remedies that courts are authorized to provide: (1) the award of money damages (compensation), or (2) the issuance of an injunction (a court order prohibiting a party from doing something).

Time to take a deep breath. To sum up Parts A, B, & C of Module 2, the law is a seamless web, and State and federal law make up the bulk of this enormous, interconnected web. I will proceed to Part D, the outer edges of this vast and complex system (International law), in my next post …

Source: @CrimeADay (via Twitter)

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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1 Response to Federal law: the expanding web

  1. Pingback: Maitland’s metaphor: law as a seamless web | prior probability

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