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Law is commonly understood as a system of rules that are created and enforced through social or governmental institutions to regulate conduct, although its precise definition is a matter of longstanding debate. It has been variously described as a science and the art of justice. State-enforced laws can be made by a collective legislature or by a single legislator, resulting in statutes, by the executive through decrees and regulations, or established by judges through precedent, normally in common law jurisdictions. Private individuals can create legally binding contracts, including arbitration agreements that may elect to accept alternative arbitration to the normal court process. The formation of laws themselves may be influenced by a constitution, written or tacit, and the rights encoded therein. The law shapes politics, economics, history and society in various ways and serves as a mediator of relations between people.

Legal systems vary between countries, with their differences analysed in comparative law. In civil law jurisdictions, a legislature or other central body codifies and consolidates the law. In common law systems, judges make binding case law through precedent, although on occasion case law may be overturned by a higher court or the legislature. Historically, religious law influenced secular matters, and is still used in some religious communities. Sharia law based on Islamic principles is used as the primary legal system in several countries, including Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Law's scope can be divided into two domains. Public law concerns government and society, including constitutional law, administrative law, and criminal law. Private law deals with legal disputes between individuals and/or organisations in areas such as contracts, property, torts/delicts and commercial law. This distinction is stronger in civil law countries, particularly those with a separate system of administrative courts; by contrast, the public-private law divide is less pronounced in common law jurisdictions.

Law provides a source of scholarly inquiry into legal history, philosophy, economic analysis and sociology. Law also raises important and complex issues concerning equality, fairness, and justice.

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A crowd of people, some waving rainbow flags or holding placards

Same-sex marriage in Spain has been legal since July 3, 2005. In 2004, the nation's newly elected Socialist Party (PSOE) Government, led by Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, began a campaign for its introduction, including the right of adoption by same-sex couples. After much debate, a law permitting same-sex marriage was passed by the Cortes Generales (Spain's bicameral Parliament, composed of the Senate and the Congress of Deputies) on 30 June 2005 and published on 2 July 2005. The law took effect the next day, making Spain the third country in the world to allow same-sex couples to marry on a national level, after the Netherlands and Belgium, and 17 days ahead of the right being extended across all of Canada.

The ratification of this law was not devoid of conflict, despite support from 66% of the population. Roman Catholic authorities in particular were adamantly opposed, criticising what they regarded as the weakening of the meaning of marriage. Other associations expressed concern over the possibility of lesbians and gays adopting children. Demonstrations for and against the law drew thousands of people from all parts of Spain. After its approval, the conservative People's Party challenged the law in the Constitutional Court.

Approximately 4,500 same-sex couples married in Spain during the first year of the law. Shortly after the law was passed, questions arose about the legal status of marriage to non-Spaniards whose country did not permit same-sex marriage. A ruling from the Justice Ministry stated that the country's same-sex marriage law allows a Spanish citizen to marry a non-Spaniard regardless of whether that person's homeland recognizes the partnership. At least one partner must be a Spanish citizen in order to marry, although two non-Spaniards may marry if they both have legal residence in Spain. (more...)

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A black and white photograph of WarrenGMagnuson

Warren Grant "Maggie" Magnuson (April 12, 1905–May 20, 1989) was an American lawyer and politician. A member of the Democratic Party, he served as a U.S. Representative (1937–1944) and a U.S. Senator (1944–1981) from Washington. He served over 36 years in the Senate, and was the most senior member of the body during his final two years in office. He earned a Bachelor of Laws degree from the University of Washington School of Law in 1929, and became active in politics in 1928, volunteering for A. Scott Bullitt for governor and Al Smith for president. In 1929, Magnuson was admitted to the bar and joined the law office of Judge Samuel Stern in Seattle. He served as special prosecutor for King County in 1932, investigating official misconduct. He was a leading supporter of repealing state Prohibition laws and establishing the state Liquor Control Board. From 1933 to 1934, Magnuson served as a member of the Washington House of Representatives from the Seattle-based 37th Legislative District. As a state legislator, he sponsored the first unemployment compensation bill in the nation. He was a delegate to the state constitutional convention in 1933. He briefly served as Assistant United States District Attorney before being elected prosecuting attorney of King County, serving from 1934 to 1936. Magnuson was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1936, filling a vacancy caused by the sudden death of fellow Democrat Marion Zioncheck on August 7, 1936. In 1937, along with senators Homer Bone and Matthew Neely, Magnuson introduced the National Cancer Institute Act, which was signed into law by Franklin Roosevelt on August 5 of that year. He won re-election in 1938, 1940, and 1942. In 1944, Magnuson successfully ran for the U.S. Senate. He was appointed on December 14, 1944 to fill the vacancy created by Homer Bone's appointment to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, thus resigning from the House and starting his service in the Senate a month early. He was re-elected in 1950, 1956, 1962, 1968, and 1974. He served on the Senate Commerce Committee throughout his tenure in the Senate, and the Senate Appropriations Committee during his final term. (more...)

What is a statute?

A statute is a formal written enactment of a legislative authority that governs the legal entities of a city, state, or country by way of consent. Typically, statutes command or prohibit something, or declare policy. Statutes are rules made by legislative bodies; they are distinguished from case law or precedent, which is decided by courts, and regulations issued by government agencies. Learn more about statutes...

Following is an example of a noted statute or comparable written law:


A filer warning of, among other things, "mental hygiene"

The Alaska Mental Health Enabling Act of 1956 (Public Law 84-830) was an Act of Congress passed to improve mental health care in the United States territory of Alaska. It became the focus of a major political controversy after opponents nicknamed it the "Siberia Bill" and denounced it as being part of a communist plot to hospitalize and brainwash Americans. Campaigners asserted that it was part of an international Jewish, Roman Catholic or psychiatric conspiracy intended to establish United Nations-run concentration camps in the United States.

The legislation in its original form was sponsored by the Democratic Party, but after it ran into opposition, it was rescued by the conservative Republican Senator Barry Goldwater. Under Goldwater's sponsorship, a version of the legislation without the commitment provisions that were the target of intense opposition from a variety of far-right, anti-Communist and fringe religious groups was passed by the United States Senate. The controversy still plays a prominent role in the Church of Scientology's account of its campaign against psychiatry.

The Act succeeded in its initial aim of establishing a mental health care system for Alaska, funded by income from lands allocated to a mental health trust. However, during the 1970s and early 1980s, Alaskan politicians systematically stripped the trust of its lands, transferring the most valuable land to private individuals and state agencies. The asset stripping was eventually ruled to be illegal following several years of litigation, and a reconstituted mental health trust was established in the mid-1980s. (more...)


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What is case law?

Case law is the collection of past legal decisions written by courts and similar tribunals in the course of deciding cases, in which the law was analyzed using these cases to resolve ambiguities for deciding current cases. These past decisions are called "case law", or precedent. Stare decisis—a Latin phrase meaning “let the decision stand”—is the principle by which judges are bound to such past decisions. These judicial interpretations are distinguished from statutory law, which are codes enacted by legislative bodies, and regulatory law, which are established by executive agencies based on statutes. In some jurisdictions, case law can be applied to ongoing adjudication; for example, criminal proceedings or family law.

In common law countries (including the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand), the term case law is a near-exact synonym for common law. It is used for judicial decisions of selected appellate courts, courts of first instance, agency tribunals, and other bodies discharging adjudicatory functions.

Learn more about case law...

For examples of noted cases, see Lists of case law. Following is one example of such a noted case:


A photograph on the left shows a thin man with a small moustache; a photograph on the right shows a large man with a beard but no moustache; the central image is the blended product of these images

The Tichborne case was a legal cause célèbre that captivated Victorian England in the 1860s and 1870s. It concerned the claims by an individual sometimes referred to as Thomas Castro or as Arthur Orton, but usually termed "the Claimant", to be the missing heir to the Tichborne baronetcy. He failed to convince the courts, was convicted of perjury and served a long prison sentence.

Roger Tichborne, heir to the family's title and fortunes, had disappeared after a shipwreck in 1854. His mother clung to a belief that he might have survived, and after hearing rumours that he had made his way to Australia, she advertised extensively in Australian newspapers offering a reward for information. In 1866 a butcher known as Thomas Castro from Wagga Wagga came forward claiming to be Roger Tichborne; although his manners and bearing were unrefined, he gathered support and travelled to England. He was instantly accepted by Lady Tichborne as her son, although other family members were dismissive and sought to expose him as an imposter. (more...)


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