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What is Public Law?

By Christy Bieber
Updated May 16, 2024
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Public law is the branch of law that governs the behavior of people and is enforced by the state. Public law is distinct from private law, which focuses only on people's relationships with each other. Public law relates to a person's state-mandated obligations to behave in a certain manner.

In the US, laws are all divided into two categories: public and private laws. Private laws are enforced by citizens only. For example, if a person breaches a contract or commits a tort, an act that causes harm to another person, those violations are violations of private law. When a private law is violated, the victim who is harmed by the violation can sue in civil court. The government does not involve itself in enforcing private laws, other than the level of involvement associated with providing a court system to hear the cases and enforce penalties.

All public laws must be enforced by some aspect of government interference or intrusion. In this sense, they are distinct from private laws in which one individual brings a lawsuit against another. Private laws are enforced by litigation, while public laws are enforced by law enforcement.

Public laws include Constitutional law, criminal law, and administrative law. The Constitution grants rights to individuals, but also vests them with a responsibility not to do harm to others. If a person violates the Constitutional prohibitions against deprivation of life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness, then the court can impose penalties.

Criminal laws are also public laws. Criminal laws are laws that are made in order to create an ordered society. If a person violates a criminal law, although their victim is another individual, that person still violates the public law of society.

Laws imposed by administrative agencies are also public laws. For example, in the US, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) places limitations upon a person's right to dispose of hazardous waste materials. This is a public law, enforced by the EPA, because improper disposal of waste can lead to problems for society at large.

Public laws are normally enforced by government agents or officials. For example, if a person commits a crime, he or she can be prosecuted by a federal or state prosecutor. The victim of the crime need not press charges, or even want the crime to be prosecuted, but the government officials can still punish the criminal for the violation of public law.

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Discussion Comments

By epiphany5 — On Jun 16, 2011

It's also important to note where our common law comes from. (I'm a bit of a law junkie, so forgive me if I ramble). Because the United States has strong historical ties to Great Britain, English common law has a direct influence on the theory and practices of law in America. Common law, in its purest sense, consist of judges presiding in courts, who apply their knowledge of the law and common sense, to the people in their jurisdiction. The court system of America is based strongly on this theory and practice.

There are some states, however, in which other theories of law have influenced their court system. I know where I live in Louisiana, our law system is actually more based on the Code Napoleon, since it was once a French colony. The State of New York, with its strong Dutch tradition, have several laws relating to civil obligation.

By Oski — On Jun 14, 2011

Great explanation -- I think this covers many of the relevant points. I teach a government class, and will definitely be using this as a reading.

I would just like to add a few points though. I think it's important to state that the distinction between private law and public law in the US allows for federal and state governments to not be involved with private legal affairs of citizens.

This can help to speed up the legal process, as government intervention and regulation is not needed. However, I think that more private legal matters should be resolved using mediation. A mediator is an independent third party that aides the two litigators in coming to a solution regarding their legal problem.

By allowing for litigants to settle their disputes outside of court, not only is a resolution reached quicker, but the outcome of that resolution is often more favorable to both parties than a judge's decision would have been.

Additionally, legal fees can be greatly reduced with the use of a mediator. I think lawyers should encourage their clients to seek mediation as a means of resolving their arguments, rather than battling their case in a lengthy court process.

By Clairdelune — On Jun 14, 2011

An area of law which prepares law students and lawyers to become aware of social justice needs is gaining a lot of support.

Training in the skills necessary to serve those who don't have equal access to legal representation is the goal of The Equal Justice Works. This organization gives law students and lawyers fellowships to provide services in foreclosure, domestic violence, immigration, homelessness, civil rights, and access to health care.

This is a great service that is providing equal justice for those unfortunates, who can't pay for legal help. In addition, it improves the whole community.

By live2shop — On Jun 13, 2011

The founders of our Constitutional did quite a good job of setting up the legal system for our country. It is orderly and seems to follow logic in most cases.

I wonder what system or systems that they used for examples. I should know, but I haven't taken any legal classes for a long time.

In some ways, I think, maybe the English system of common law has its good points too. Or maybe incorporating some parts of common law into our system might be good.

Common law bases its decisions on the precedents set in the past. I like the fact that if a case isn't similar, at all, to any former case, the judge can create a new precedent. This makes it possible to change laws based on new and changing circumstances.

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