Black letter law is the law of the land, so to speak; it includes well established principles and standards that eliminate the potential for reinterpretation or ambiguity in the laws already accepted within the American legal system.
Black Letter Law
Essentially, there’s no gray area with black letter law, which includes well-accepted standards, rules, and laws that eliminate confusion or ambiguity in American law. Sometimes known as Hornbook or trite law, black letter laws have already been interpreted, accepted, and upheld time and again in the legal system and are no longer open for interpretation like some other laws. For example, laws against drunk driving are fairly universal throughout different jurisdictions in the United States, making them black letter laws.The significance of black letter law is that it provides the legal system with a clear standard that must be upheld. Citizens, too, are accountable for knowing these principles and laws, as ignorance of the law is not a valid defense against prosecution.
Defining Criminal Activity
Having a clear, indisputable definition for a particular crime or the degree of a crime contributes to the standard of black letter law. Laws regarding things like homicide, theft, and arson are listed in the Model Penal Code and fall under a basic, generally accepted definition, making them examples of black letter law. You cannot murder people, steal things, or set someone’s house on fire and be prosecuted without falling under the scrutiny of these indisputable laws. Here is an excerpt from the Model Penal Code that defines criminal homicide:’Sec. 19.01.
TYPES OF CRIMINAL HOMICIDE. (a) A person commits criminal homicide if he intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or with criminal negligence causes the death of an individual.(b) Criminal homicide is murder, capital murder, manslaughter, or criminally negligent homicide.’While there are varying degrees of homicide, which include murder, capital murder, manslaughter, and criminally negligent homicide, as listed above, the definition of criminal homicide is not up for interpretation. Plea bargains can sometimes shift the degree of murder that a defendant is charged with, but here again, it is still criminal homicide.
Finding a Definition
Some specific court cases have caused laws to become black letter laws when various re-interpretations of the law in regard to a case results in one universal understanding of the law. Typically, this happens through an appeals process, which can go all the way to the United States Supreme Court. Some of the most famous Supreme Court cases in history have led to the creation of black letter laws.Gideon v. Wainwright was a Supreme Court case which removed the ambiguity of the Sixth Amendment and essentially made it into black letter law.
Mr. Gideon was a Florida man arrested for breaking and entering, and he was charged with petty larceny. Because of Mr. Gideon’s financial situation, he requested that the court appoint him an attorney. The court refused, stating that his case was not a capital offense, so he had no claim under the Sixth Amendment for a court appointed attorney. Mr. Gideon was convicted and sent to prison.
He subsequently appealed his case and it eventually went before the Supreme Court, which ruled that states were required to provide counsel in the event that a defendant could not afford it, even if the criminal matter was not a capital offense. This ruling eliminated the ambiguity of the Sixth Amendment, and the matter is no longer disputed.Not all Supreme Court cases that have been upheld have led to the creation of black letter law. Plessy v. Ferguson, for example, did not create a black letter law. Plessy v.
Ferguson upheld that segregation is legal when it adheres to the concept of separate but equal, but forced segregation was widely disputed since this ruling and is no longer legal in the United States.
Black letter law, also known as Hornbook or trite law is an indisputable law that is not open for interpretation. The Model Penal Code establishes definitions for crimes like arson, theft, or murder, which makes them fall under black letter laws. Laws that have been made indisputable through Supreme Court cases such as Gideon v. Wainwright, which established that people who cannot afford an attorney have the right to a court-appointed attorney for criminal offenses, are also black letter laws.