An act of a legislature that declares, proscribes, or commands something; a specific law, expressed in writing.
A statute is a written law passed by a legislature on the state or federal level. Statutes set forth general propositions of law that courts apply to specific situations. A statute may forbid a certain act, direct a certain act, make a declaration, or set forth governmental mechanisms to aid society.
A statute begins as a bill proposed or sponsored by a legislator. If the bill survives the legislative committee process and is approved by both houses of the legislature, the bill becomes law when it is signed by the executive officer (the president on the federal level or the governor on the state level). When a bill becomes law, the various provisions in the bill are called statutes. The term statute signifies the elevation of a bill from legislative proposal to law. State and federal statutes are compiled in statutory codes that group the statutes by subject. These codes are published in book form and are available at law libraries.
Lawmaking powers are vested chiefly in elected officials in the legislative branch. The vesting of the chief lawmaking power in elected lawmakers is the foundation of a representative democracy. Aside from the federal and state constitutions, statutes passed by elected lawmakers are the first laws to consult in finding the law that applies to a case.
The power of statutes over other forms of laws is not complete, however. Under the U.S. Constitution and state constitutions, federal and state governments are comprised of a system of checks and balances among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. As the system of checks and balances plays out, the executive and judicial branches have the opportunity to fashion laws within certain limits. The EXECUTIVE BRANCH may possess certain lawmaking powers under the federal or state constitutions, and the judiciary has the power to review statutes to determine whether they are valid under those constitutions. When a court strikes down a statute, it in effect creates a law of its own that applies to the general public.
Laws created through judicial opinion stand in contradistinction to laws created in statutes. Case law has the same legally binding effect as statutory law, but there are important distinctions between statutes and case law. Case law is written by judges, not by elected lawmakers, and it is written in response to a specific case before the court. A judicial opinion may be used as precedent for similar cases, however. This means that the judicial opinion in the case will guide the result in similar cases. In this sense a judicial opinion can constitute the law on certain issues within a particular jurisdiction. Courts can establish law in this way when no statute exists to govern a case, or when the court interprets a statute.
For example, if an appeals court holds that witness testimony on memory recovered through therapy is not admissible at trial, that decision will become the rule for similar cases within the appeals court's jurisdiction. The decision will remain law until the court reverses itself or is reversed by a higher court, or until the state or federal legislature passes a statute that overrides the judicial decision. If the courts strike down a statute and the legislature passes a similar statute, the courts may have an opportunity to declare the new statute unconstitutional. This cycle can be repeated over and over if legislatures continually test the constitutional limits on their lawmaking powers.
Judicial opinions also provide legal authority in cases that are not covered by statute. Legislatures have not passed statutes that govern every conceivable dispute. Furthermore, the language contained in statutes does not cover every possible situation. Statutes may be written in broad terms, and judicial opinions must interpret the language of relevant statutes according to the facts of the case at hand. Regulations passed by administrative agencies also fill in statutory gaps, and courts occasionally are called on to interpret regulations as well as statutes.
Courts tend to follow a few general rules in determining the meaning or scope of a statute. If a statute does not provide satisfactory definitions of ambiguous terms, courts must interpret the words or phrases according to ordinary rules of grammar and dictionary definitions. If a word or phrase is technical or legal, it is interpreted within the context of the statute. For example, the term interest can refer to a monetary charge or ownership of property. If the term interest appears in the context of a statute on real estate ownership, a court will construe the word to mean property ownership. Previous interpretations of similar statutes are also helpful in determining a statute's meaning.
Statutes are not static and irreversible. A statute may be changed or repealed by the lawmaking body that enacted it, or it may be overturned by a court. A statute may lapse, or terminate, under the terms of the statute itself or under legislative rules that automatically terminate statutes unless they are reapproved before a certain amount of time has passed.
Although most legal disputes are covered at least in part by statutes, TORT and contract disputes are exceptions, in that they are largely governed by case law. CRIMINAL LAW, patent law, tax law, PROPERTY LAW, and BANKRUPTCY law are among the areas of law that are covered first and foremost by statute.