That Blankety-Blank Law!


Did you ever stop to think about what a remarkably versatile concept “law” is?

The first definition of law in my dictionary of choice has five sections, two of which have three subsections:

(a) (1) : a binding custom or practice of a community : a rule of conduct or action prescribed or formally recognized as binding or enforced by a controlling authority

(2) : the whole body of such customs, practices, or rules

(3) : common law

(b) (1) : the control brought about by the existence or enforcement of such law

(2) : the action of laws considered as a means of redressing wrongs; also : litigation

(3) : the agency of or an agent of established law

(c) : a rule or order that it is advisable or obligatory to observe

(d) : something compatible with or enforceable by established law

(e) : control, authority

Focusing on the first definition, did you ever think about how many “laws” are that have their very own names?

There’s Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.

There’s the Law of the Jungle: Eat or be eaten.

There’s Lambert’s Law: The luminous intensity of a perfectly diffusing surface in any direction is proportional to the cosine of the angle between that direction and the normal to the surface.

Okay, so maybe you weren’t aware of that last one.

Newton’s First Law: A body remains at rest or in motion with a constant velocity unless acted upon by an external force.

Law of the Excluded Middle: For any proposition, either that proposition is true, or its negation is true.

In addition to being a diverse concept, “law” also is an all-star word.

It has spawned much colorful terminology. We have blue laws and blue-sky law.

We see actions taken under color of law.

We may feel inspired, or judged, by divine law.

And we deal with leash laws, lemon laws, and the law of supply and demand.

We have attorneys-at-law; fathers-, mothers-, sisters, brothers, sons-, and daughters-in-law; courts of law; due process of law; and the long arm of the law.

We have law-abiding and law-breaking law-makers; law clerks concerned with law and order on Law Day; law firms whose members have law degrees and engage in law practice; law students at law schools.

We also have common law, statutory law, and the rule of law.

But what does it all mean?

To that we might turn to W.H Auden, who wrote “Law Like Love,” a poem covered in the Law & Literature seminar I teach.

If you haven’t read it, read it. I’d reprint it here, but for what a couple of law professors told me some years back.

In 2003, Jerry Phillips, Esq., and Judy Cornett, Esq., then professors at University of Tennessee School of Law, came out with “Sound and Sense: A Text on Law and Literature.”

“Sound and Sense” runs 760 pages. The first thing I noticed about it was that “Law Like Love” was not included in its 125 pages of poetry.

I asked the editors about this. They told me point blank: “The copyright holder wanted seventy-five hundred dollars for permission to reprint it!”

Darn that intellectual property law!

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at