Many rules and regulations in law are substantive, and others are procedural. We are used to seeing laws as substantive; that is, there is some rule of conduct or behavior that is called for or some action that is proscribed (prohibited). The substantive rules tell us how to act with one another and with the government. For example, all of the following are substantive rules of law and provide a kind of command or direction to citizens:
- Drive not more than fifty-five miles per hour where that speed limit is posted.
- Do not conspire to fix prices with competitors in the US market.
- Do not falsely represent the curative effects of your over-the-counter herbal remedy.
- Do not drive your motor vehicle through an intersection while a red traffic signal faces the direction you are coming from.
- Do not discriminate against job applicants or employees on the basis of their race, sex, religion, or national origin.
- Do not discharge certain pollutants into the river without first getting a discharge permit.
In contrast, procedural laws are the rules of courts and administrative agencies. They tell us how to proceed if there is a substantive-law problem. For example, if you drive fifty-three miles per hour in a forty mile-per-hour zone on Main Street on a Saturday night and get a ticket, you have broken a substantive rule of law (the posted speed limit). Just how and what gets decided in court is a matter of procedural law. Is the police officer’s word final, or do you get your say before a judge? If so, who goes first, you or the officer? Do you have the right to be represented by legal counsel? Does the hearing or trial have to take place within a certain time period? A week? A month? How long can the state take to bring its case? What kinds of evidence will be relevant? Radar? (Does it matter what kind of training the officer has had on the radar device? Whether the radar device had been tested adequately?) The officer’s personal observation? (What kind of training has he had, how is he qualified to judge the speed of a car, and other questions arise.) What if you unwisely bragged to a friend at a party recently that you went a hundred miles an hour on Main Street five years ago at half past three on a Tuesday morning? (If the prosecutor knows of this and the “friend” is willing to testify, is it relevant to the charge of fifty-three in a forty-mile-per-hour zone?)
In the United States, all state procedural laws must be fair, since the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment directs that no state shall deprive any citizen of “life, liberty, or property,” without due process of law. (The $200 fine plus court costs is designed to deprive you of property, that is, money, if you violate the speed limit.) Federal laws must also be fair, because the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution has the exact same due process language as the Fourteenth Amendment. This suggests that some laws are more powerful or important than others, which is true. The next section looks at various types of positive law and their relative importance.
In most legal systems, like that in the United States, there is a fairly firm distinction between criminal law (for actions that are offenses against the entire society) and civil law (usually for disputes between individuals or corporations). Basic ethical norms for promise-keeping and not harming others are reflected in the civil law of contracts and torts. In the United States, both the states and the federal government have roles to play, and sometimes these roles will overlap, as in environmental standards set by both states and the federal government.
- Jenna gets a ticket for careless driving after the police come to investigate a car accident she had with you on Hanover Boulevard. Your car is badly damaged through no fault of your own. Is Jenna likely to face criminal charges, civil charges, or both?
- Jenna’s ticket says that she has thirty days in which to respond to the charges against her. The thirty days conforms to a state law that sets this time limit. Is the thirty-day limit procedural law or substantive law?