In the US, each of the fifty states operates as a separate sovereign with their own state constitution, governments, and courts. Each state has also established its own individual laws applicable in their jurisdiction, known as state laws. These laws apply to any residents and visitors of the state, as well as any corporations that operate in the territory. It is possible for an individual to do something legal in their home state, which could result in fines and charges in another.
Although many people find the constitution comes to mind when thinking about US law, the majority of legal cases involve state law rather than being litigated in federal court. In fact, state courts handle the overwhelming majority of cases. The only areas of law that cannot be tried in state courts are lawsuits against the US, such as immigration, bankruptcy, and social security matters.
For a state law to be made, bills must be enacted by the state legislatures and passed through the chambers before being signed into law by the governor. Examples of typical issues that are found under jurisdictional laws include family, welfare, domestic, property, business, personal injury, and criminal matters. However, state law can cover a range of different topics. Some notable examples to paint a picture of the disparity between territories include:
- Online Gambling: In New Jersey, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Delaware, legal “real” money online poker is legal, yet in any other jurisdiction it is illegal. States also have different legislation on online casino gaming and sports betting. The legal minimum age for gambling also varies between 18 and 21, depending on the state.
- Guns: All fifty US states allow people the right to concealed carry of a firearm. However, in California, you need a license to do so, whereas in Texas any person with no criminal history can purchase a gun.
The state laws exist in parallel with federal laws created by the US Congress. However, in some cases, there can be conflicts that violate the constitution. Three main types of conflict arise: (1) conflict over civil rights, (2) conflict over responsibility rules and (3) explicit conflict over certain issues.
For (1) and (2), state law wins. For example, if state laws allow a person more civil rights than federal laws, the state laws prevail and the resident will be granted these additional rights. Similarly, federal law has no say over responsibility rules. If the laws of a state make it illegal to not wear seatbelts when traveling in the back of a vehicle, residents must abide by this even if this is not recognized at a federal level. In converse, where there is a direct conflict of interest (3), federal law always prevails.
Since independence and the formulation of distinct state laws over centuries, the legal system of the US has become extremely diverged. It can now no longer be regarded as one. Instead, it is comprised of fifty separate systems, with each state having its unique set of rules and regulations. To discover more about the codes, case laws, and legal systems for each US state, click on the resources below.