The legal system is a confusing place, especially for people who did not go to law school or extensively study the U.S. government in college. One thing that often confuses people who are new to the legal world is the difference between statutes and cases. Both of these are used by judges when they issue a ruling.
Seeing how this all works out can help you better understand what's going on, in your own legal situation.
The Difference Between Statutes and Cases
Simply put, the difference between a statute and a case is where it comes from.
Statutes come from legislatures, like Congress or the Maine State Legislature, where people you elect write and vote on proposed laws. These laws, if passed, become statutes. These statutes become the law that we are all expected to abide by.
Cases (or case law), on the other hand, come from courts, where judges use statutes and prior cases to resolve specific disputes concerning constitutional issues.
Why Cases Are So Important
Cases are crucial, especially in the criminal law, because statutes – also known as “legislative law” – are never perfectly written to account for every possible situation. For example, take Maine's statute on assault, which makes it illegal for someone to “intentionally, knowingly or recklessly cause bodily injury or offensive physical contact” to someone else.
While this statute might seem pretty solid, notice that, for example, assault requires either “bodily injury” or “offensive physical contact.” What does that mean? What is considered “contact” or what is deemed “offensive” can make a huge difference in a particular case. However, the statute doesn't say what these words mean, leaving some “wiggle room” in the language of the law. Therefore, it's up to judges in particular cases to figure out what is “contact” and what is “offensive” for the purposes of assault.
Every statute has words with this kind of “wiggle room” in it that create ambiguity and uncertainty. In resolving these ambiguities for specific cases, though, judges make a point of keeping their decisions as uniform as possible, so people can know what's against the law. It wouldn't be fair if, for example, one judge in Portland decides that the “contact” necessary for assault has to be direct – you have to physically touch the victim's body with your own to be convicted – while one in Bangor decides that indirect contact, like throwing a brick at someone, is enough.
Therefore, over time, judges have decided case after case and written opinions that interpret statutes or constitutional issues and resolve the wiggle room in that statute or constitutional interpretation. The rules that these cases create is called “common law,” and serves to fill in the gaps that statutes have, tightening up the wiggle room in a statute and getting rid of its ambiguity.
Criminal Defense Attorney William T. Bly
The complexity of the law is not limited to the huge number of laws that are on the books. Each and every law has its own set of cases that interpret ambiguous words in it. This complexity is just one of the reasons why you need an experienced criminal defense attorney to represent you in court, if you've been charged with a crime. Contact the law office of William T. Bly online, or at (207) 571-8146, if you're facing criminal charges.