Preliminary Investigation: What is The Law and where can you find It?

In view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. – John Marshall Harlan, Dissenting opinion, Plessy v. Ferguson 163 U.S. 537 [1896].

At this point, you might be chomping at the bit to find a lawyer. Before you do, though, I suggest spending a week learning a few law-type things about your potential case. Why? Because it’s interesting.

What exactly is “The Law?” In my [possibly idiosyncratic] view, The Law in the United States comes packaged in a series of trilogies:

Law Trilogy One

  1. The United States Constitution.
  2. The Bill of Rights (first ten amendments).
  3. All subsequent amendments (now at 27).

I’ve put links to the full texts of all three, under Sites of Interest, on the right column of this page → along with a link to the Declaration of Independence → which launched us as a country and, subsequently, a nation of laws.

I think of the D of I as an indictment. If you read it and then read the Constitution, you can see how and why certain segments of the Constitution were written. I see them as composed to get in the face of and reject forever an imperial autocrat and his powers over citizens.

Because they were written out of a sort of experiential paranoia about absolute monarchs, some segments of the Constitution, as well as a couple of the amendments, make little sense today.

For a thorough understanding of the Constitution (which is itself only about 5,000 words), you’d need to read a library-full of scholarship. (As well as accept the maybe difficult premise that you’re living in the 21st Century.) I’ve read some Constitutional scholars; even the most eloquent are hard for me, a layman, to understand. The Constitution is, whatever anybody says, a living complex document and keeps growing and being interpreted and re-interpreted and getting more complex in the process.

If you want some deep reading about our laws read Akhil Reed Amar. He’s a gorgeous writer and astoundingly brilliant. You’ll probably have to read slowly, but you’ll want to. I read his The Bill of Rights. When I told him I found it wonderful but very dense, he said that his following book, America’s Constitution: A Biography, was written more for laymen than law students. I haven’t read it yet but know I will.

If you want something less scholarly, try Kenneth C. Davis’s Don’t Know Much About History: Everything You Need to Know About American History But Never Learned. I was surprised to learn I didn’t know that much. Until I read the book. It’s delightful and has the full Constitutional amendments in an appendix. Very handy when you’re pulling out your hair over the NRA.

Law Trilogy Two

  1. The Constitution, the Bill of Rights and all subsequent Amendments (under Sites of Interest →)
  2. Laws/statutes/acts written over the centuries by government legislatures (Congress, your state legislature, your city council) which are, basically, extensions of Law Trilogy One, and are directly applicable to our day-to-day lives as citizens.
  3. Case law: as each law is applied for or against someone or some entity in a trial or some other action, the law itself is tested by our courts and us, as jurors. These cases add an interpretive layer to the law as written. They can confirm, change and/or challenge the law.

The case I quoted from at the top, Plessy v. Ferguson, is a good example of case law—because it was effectively nullified with another example of case law, Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka in 1954. Despite Harlan’s impassioned dissent, Plessy said segregation was OK; Brown said it wasn’t. (Nothing about segregation is in the actual Constitution or in the Amendments. Slavery is, though.)

No way will you or any non-lawyer be able to read and understand all of this. But you can get some idea of one narrow aspect of The Law as it pertains to your potential litigation: do you have a case?

So where can we, average citizens, find The Law? We should be able to find it outside a lawyer’s office in, yeah, three places:

Law Trilogy Three

  1. Your public library.
  2. Court or law libraries.
  3. The Internet.

I’ll get to some of this next, with my own personal re-discovery of Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism:

A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, And drinking largely sobers us again.

Or, briefer, “Better be ignorant of a matter than half know it,” a maxim from Publilius Syrus.

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