Elgar Encyclopedia of Comparative Law, Second Edition
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Elgar Encyclopedia of Comparative Law, Second Edition

Edited by Jan M. Smits

Written by leading authorities in their respective fields, the contributions in this accessible book cover and combine not only questions regarding the methodology of comparative law, but also specific areas of law (such as administrative law and criminal law) and specific topics (such as accident compensation and consideration). In addition, the Encyclopedia contains reports on a selected set of countries’ legal systems and, as a whole, presents an overview of the current state of affairs.
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Chapter 5: American law (United States)*

Ralf Michaels


Understanding US law is impossible without first understanding the role law plays both in its political system and in the consciousness of its citizens. Law is ubiquitous in general culture: literature, cinema and television (Raynaud and Zoller, 2001). On first impression, law’s status appears paradoxical. On the one hand, there is an almost mystical faith in the power of law to transcend all conflicts: the rule of law (as opposed to the rule of men) was the American formula for a just society, in opposition to the absolutist European governments of the time. The US Constitution was the founding document for the nation, and law has ever since had a defining character for the country and its self-perception as a beacon of democracy and individual freedom. While there are struggles within the law, the rule of law and the Constitution themselves seem beyond discussion: they provide an almost unquestioned framework for debates (Levinson, 1988). On the other hand, and for similar reasons, the distinction between law and politics is much less clear than in European countries. It is acknowledged – sometimes cynically, sometimes approvingly – that law incorporates and serves the political ends of those who shape it. Many Americans traditionally distrust government, and this encompasses distrust of any claims of neutral, objective, natural law.

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