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Changing Our Laws

Authored By: Carl Vinson Institute
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CHANGING OUR LAWS

This document tells you the following:

  • How can ordinary people have a say in any of the laws that govern us?
  • How is it possible for our laws to change over time? What are three reasons for our being able to change the laws over time?
  • How do we go about changing constitutional laws?
  • How do we go about changing statutory laws or ordinances?
  • How do we go about changing administrative laws?


Laws are made by people. Constitutions-and the government-rest on the power given by the people. There are three points to bear in mind about how ordinary people can affect laws.

Point 1:To work, laws must reflect the values of most of the people they govern.

To illustrate, consider what happened in the United States some years ago. A number of people strongly believed that drinking alcoholic beverages was wrong. As a result of their efforts, an amendment to the U.S. Constitution forbidding the sale of alcoholic beverages was passed in 1920. However, it proved very difficult to enforce this law. Many Americans wanted to be able to buy alcoholic beverages. Violations of the law were commonplace. Finally, in 1933, the amendment was repealed. In effect, so many Americans -wanted to drink alcoholic beverages that the law was unenforceable.

Point 2:People's values and ways of life change.

To work, laws must be able to accom-modate such changes. It is easy to see how developments in technology affect laws. The coming of the automobile resulted in a network of paved roads. It also resulted in new laws and regulations. Existing laws regarding horse traffic became use-less. New ones regulating drivers, use of roads, sale of cars, and other laws were needed and enacted.
Slavery is perhaps the best example of the effect of changing values on laws within our country. In the early years of this nation, the holding of other human beings as slaves was an accepted practice. Laws supported the holding of slaves. Then values changed. More and more people felt that slavery was wrong.

In 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation heralded the end of the right to own slaves. The Thirteenth Amendment, passed in 1865, prohibited slavery. It is easy to understand why laws upholding slavery would not be acceptable in today's America.

Can you think of any recent laws that reflect changes in attitudes and values? One example would be the laws protecting the environment. People have become increasingly aware of the dangers of polluting the air and water. They understand the effects of creating unmanageable amounts of garbage. They have also come to realize that the natural heritage of animals, plants, and scenic and wilderness areas could be destroyed if they are not protected.

In general, laws are slow to reflect changes in the values and customs of society. However, there are examples of how laws reflect rapidly changing values, such as those you may read about in the media concerning technology.

Point 3:In a democracy, people like you and me can work to get laws changed or added.

One way we do this is by lobbying our elected representatives.

Constitutional Law

In any government, it is important that laws be adaptable to change. At the same time, a framework of principles is necessary to give laws con-sistency and continuity. Like a house, laws must have a foundation.

The U.S. Constitution serves as the framework for federal law, and state constitutions underlie state law. In general, constitutions cannot easily be changed. However, it is possible to make changes to constitutions through the use of amendments. The methods for amending the constitutions of Georgia and the United States are shown in the figure below.

Amending Constitutions

  Step 1 Step 2 Step 3
Georgia Amendment is proposed to General Assembly Amendment is approved by two-thirds vote in House and Senate Amendment is approved by majority of voters at next election
United States

Amendment may be proposed by Congress OR

Two thirds of state legislatures may ask Congres to call a Constitutional Convention to propose an amendment. (This procedure has never been used)

Amendment is approved by a two-thirds vote in House and Senate Amendment must be approved by three-fourths of state legislatures or three fourths of state conventions called to vote on it.
(State conventions have only been called once.)


As you can see, it is easier to change the Georgia Constitution.

The U.S. Constitution has not been amended easily. There have been only 26 amendments in its history. One of these, prohibiting the sale of alcoholic beverages, was repealed.

If it is so difficult to change the U.S. Constitution, how has it accommodated more than 200 years of change? In effect, it has done so because its provisions have been interpreted and reinterpreted by court decisions.

 

Statutes and Ordinances

Statutes (and ordinances) are changed in the same way they are made. They can be amended or repealed (that is, canceled) by new laws.

The founders of our government intended for statutory law to be the most responsive to the will of the people and to changes. That is why lawmakers at each level of government are elected and not appointed. Elected representatives are expected to want to know the opinions of those they represent. How else can they represent them? Indeed, if they are not sensitive to the will of the people, they may not be reelected.

How can you let your senator, council-member, and other representatives know how you feel about the law?

You can phone, write, or visit them. You can join with others who share your feelings to work for or against passage of a particular law. When election time comes around, you can campaign, and-once you turn 18 and are eligible to vote-you can vote for candidates who support your views.

Administrative Law

Within the powers and limits set by constitutions and statutory laws, agencies can set up rules as needed. They can also adapt them as situations change.

However, many people complain that agency laws are not very responsive to public opinion or the needs of those they regulate.

In fact, what can a person do to get an agency rule changed?

Some agencies have procedures that allow public review of their regulations before they are passed. Both the federal Environmental Protection Agency and state Environmental Protection Division have such review procedures. Before either adopts a regulation, it publishes the text to allow interested citizens to comment on the regulations. The agency may then make adjustments as needed.

What can a single person do to change an existing agency rule?

Think about the following situation: A school principal objects to a rule of the state board of education requiring all new teachers to take extra courses for maintaining their certification. The principal feels it is unfair to the new teachers. What can she do?

She could disobey the rule. However, this response would probably only lead to trouble for her and others. She could present her arguments against the requirement to the board. If others felt the same way, they could join her in protesting the rule. If no action resulted from a protest to the state board, the principal could consult a lawyer about court action. The court would not be concerned about whether the principal or others liked the regulation. The court would consider whether the regulation was valid. What if the regulation discriminated against certain teachers? The court might then find it invalid.

 

* Excerpted from An Introduction to Law in Georgia, Fourth Edition, published by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, 1998 (updated 2004). The Vinson Institute is not responsible for errors in the online text. Content is for information only; in no way should the information in the book be considered legal advice to anyone on any matter for which there are legal implications. Any such matter should be specifically addressed with an attorney. The book is available for purchase at www.cviog.uga.edu or by contacting the Publications Program, Carl Vinson Institute of Government, University of Georgia, 201 M. Milledge Avenue, Athens, GA 30602; telephone 706-542-6377; fax 706-542-6239.

 

Last Review and Update: Jul 30, 2004