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I am trying to figure out what law, codes, statutes, bills, acts, constitutions, opinions, decisions, and legislation have in common, what the overarching entity is that these objects all are. I am working on an ontology and would like to put constitutions under the category of "codes", along with regular "codes" (like the US Code), since it seems they are both dealing with law and thus can be classified the same (though they are obviously different in some ways). Likewise, after an hour of digging around, I couldn't find really what the similarities and differences were between these 9 or 10 terms really was. Can they all be bucketed under the category of "codes" at the end of the day, or why do they need to be kept separate? Sorry for the naive question, I am no legal person, just a software developer learning as I go.

What really is a "code", then? To my understanding so far, a code is a comprehensive collection of laws. So wouldn't that mean it accounts for all these other object types?

Just found:

Once a bill has been enacted into law, it is called an act of the legislature, or a statute. Bills are introduced in the legislature and are discussed, debated and voted upon.

That helps clarify somewhat, so now it seems to come down to statute vs. constitution vs. code.

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  • The term "law" as in "the law of France" captures the meaning you seem to be looking for which encompasses decisional law, better than the term "code" which you are using in an atypical manner.
    – ohwilleke
    Jul 11, 2022 at 17:10

3 Answers 3

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what law, codes, statutes, bills, acts, constitutions, opinions, decisions, and legislation have in common, what the overarching entity is that these objects all are

  • "codes", "statutes", "acts" are legislation and can be put in the "codes" bucket. Indeed, there is a verb "to codify" which means to pass/enact a law in one of those forms.

  • "bills" are only proposed codes. They may or may not be enacted.

  • "decisions" usually refer to case law. This is definitely not "code" but still is valid law (in common law jurisdictions)

  • "opinions" may refer to judges' dissenting opinions. These are not law, though may be persuasive/honorable.

  • "constitutions" may be code (like in the US), and may be not (like in New Zealand — where it is a bunch of certain laws of all sorts)

  • "law" is all the above except for bills and opinions.

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  • Can you go into more detail about the New Zealand case, why constitution can't go in the code bucket for all situations?
    – Lance
    Jul 8, 2022 at 6:30
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    @Lance Because parts of constitution may be in case law i.e. not codified.
    – Greendrake
    Jul 8, 2022 at 6:32
  • Ok, so then finally what is the difference between a code and a law? I thought code was a collection of laws, so I need to learn why case law is not considered code (collection of laws), if it is a law too. Wiki says "Case law, also used interchangeably with common law, is law that is based on precedents, that is the judicial decisions from previous cases, rather than law based on constitutions, statutes, or regulations."
    – Lance
    Jul 8, 2022 at 6:36
  • @Lance A code is a law that the legislators (parliament/congress etc.) have passed. This is opposed to case law which judges make (in common law jurisdictions).
    – Greendrake
    Jul 8, 2022 at 6:38
  • Ok, I guess I might call it "rule" then instead of "code" (tangent, for my project!) Thanks!
    – Lance
    Jul 8, 2022 at 6:43
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"Codes" are usually collections of previously existing laws. The Code of Hammurabi and the Code of Justinian were both collections of laws, gathered for easy reference. In the US, the US Code (USC) is an almost comprehensive collection of current law, much of which was passed in separate statutes before it was codified. In this contest, to codify is to include a law in the code, altering formatting and numbering to make it consistent with the rest of the code. Laws in the US are normally passed and go into effect before they are codified.

In modern usage "code" is not normally used for a single law.

There is also the US Code of Federal Regulations or CFR which is a collection of regulations passed by various federal agencies to implement law. They are not laws, but in many respects thy have the force of law.

I believe that several other legal systems use "code" or a word that might be translated as "code" in a similar way.

In a wider sense, "code" can be used to refer to an entire system of law, as "the Mosaic code" or "the Anglo-American code". It can also be used for the precepts of a non-legsal system as "an ethical code" or "the architect's code of practice".

A bill is a proposed law not yet passed by a legislature.

In modern US usage, codes only include statutes passed by legislatures, not constitutions. This is because codes collect the work of legislatures, but written constitutions come from different and special sources.

The term "act", in modern usage, is a synonym for "statute". In historic usage not all acts were statutes, only those important enough to be routinely quoted verbatim, not paraphrased.

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That helps clarify somewhat, so now it seems to come down to statute vs. constitution vs. code.

So a statute is a law that is written and passed by a legislative process (this is different from "Case Law" but more on that later). In effect, a statute is a law passed by the body of the legislative authority and given ascent (very general in this respect and there are exceptions to this but in general, this is how it works.).

A Constitution is a document that establishes the way an organization is to be governed and what political office(s) can hold what political power. Generally the only legal entity that can violate a constitution is the government of the organization in and of itself. While constitutions are worded differently between nations, most nations did not have constitutional documents until after WWII and pre-WWII constitutions are exceedingly rare. The oldest active codified constitution is the United States Constitution (Though the San Marino Constitution is older, only some of the constitutional documents were in force of law prior to the adoption of the U.S. Constitution). A codified constitution is said to be written in a single document (like the U.S. Constitution) or multiple specific documents (like the Australian or San Marino Constitution). The United Kingdom and New Zealand are today the only democratic nations with an uncodified constitution (their supreme law is a series of acts of parliament, case law, and treaties that were not intended when written to be a constitutional principal. Isreal also has an uncodified one since the country hasn't adopted one though it intended to do so from the inception.).

Because of it's age and staying power, lots of national constitution tend to mimic the United States Constitution (such as the Swiss Confederacy, which used the U.S. document as inspiration, or the Japanese Constitution, which was written during the U.S. military occupation of Japan and was a condition of the U.S. letting Japan self-govern again, which is why the Japanese Emperor has very weak powers in the Japanese government and why the Japanese Military is defensive only.).

Constitutions, when used by nations, are "the supreme law of the land" which means that all other law that is not considered constitutional must be compliant with the constitution or it will be nullified. Usually the courts have this power to make a determination. In the case of the United States Constitution, there is specific language that limits federal law to what laws it can and cannot pass. Article I, and the 1st, 2nd, 9th, 10th, 13th, 18th and 21st amendments all contain language limiting the scope of laws congress may pass (1st, 2nd, 9th, 10th, and 21st) and granting congress authority to pass laws under a broader scope (Article I, 13th, and 18th amendments).

A code, as defined is a collection of laws. The term "codified" means that there is a specific legal document that one can find the exact legal definition of the law in. In the United States, referring to a specific code with a number is as good as saying the law in question (I.E. U.S. Federal Code [insert some number] or California Penal Code 187 (aka Murder!).). The term is interchangeable with "statute". This is also where the two major legal systems of the world tend to differ the most. Civil Law (Mostly Continental Europe and countries whose legal framework derives from colonial histories there of) only have codified laws and if an event transpires such that it does not meet the entire definition of a law that could make that event illegal, it's legal. Common Law Nations (British Isles and Nations deriving legal frameworks from colonial history there of OR the U.S.) have both codified legal codes and case law, which is interpretations of the codified law that are law for that court and all courts inferior to it. In effect, if a judge or jury make a ruling at trial all similar cases must make the same ruling. This allows legislation in Common Law Jurisdictions to be less lengthy and specific to various scenarios.

As an example, the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, which made monopolies and uncompetitive trusts illegal in the United States, can reasonably fit all 8 sections of the law on a single piece of paper. What those 8 sections all mean over the course of 130+ years of court cases, could fill a book. And crazy enough, there are some U.S. states with no codified legal definition of murder (all the codified law that exists on the matter are how someone convicted of murder should be sentenced; no definition). This is again, because the courts in those states have produced enough case law on the subject that the legislature of that state felt any effort to make a codified definition was a waste of their time (unlike U.S. Congress, state legislatures often only meet for a few months out of the entire year.).

This is why, in current events in the United States, pro-choice activists are upset at the Democratic party for not codifying abortion law at the federal level. Up until late June 2022, federal abortion law was entirely based in case law from the Supreme Court, not an act of Congress. One of the few ways to overturn supreme court case law is if the supreme court overrules itself on the matter (it's rare that this happens, but not unheard of. The other way, in case you are wondering, is to amend the constitution which for a hot button issue like abortion, is difficult to do as it requires basically 75% of the nation to agree.).

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