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The American Legal System


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The law progresses by building on its past. Therefore, to understand the modern American le-gal system, you must understand its historical background. In your first year of law school, you may be asked to read decisions of seventeenth and eighteenth century courts that include foreign phrases, such as Nemo est haeres viventis ("the living have no heirs"), and discussions of archaic actions, such as detinue and trover. While a good legal dictionary is the best tool for solving such mysteries, an appreciation of the American legal system's origins will help you understand how the practice of law evolved to its present form. Therefore, this chapter provides an overview of American legal history, beginning with its roots in England, and of the current American legal system.

The common-law courts developed the doctrine of stare decisis to create certainty and stability in the law, and the doctrine had that effect. As the law became more standardized, however, it also became unworkably rigid. The judges of the common-law courts strictly applied established procedures, doc-trines, and remedies even when they produced unjust results. For example, despite the complexities of the writ system, the common-law courts frequently ruled against a petitioner if the wrong writ had been used or did not contain the precise words required for the writ. The common-law courts also would apply a rule of law to decide a case even if the rule caused a patently unfair result because of the unique facts of the case. Even if a court ruled in the petitioner's favor, the court would grant only money remedies or remedies concerning land. It would not grant an injunction to prohibit future wrongdoing.

Because the king had retained power to administer justice even after creation of the common-law courts, citizens began petitioning him and his council for relief from the court's rigidity. The citizen petitions routinely were delegated to the chancellor, especially as they increased dramatically in number. Eventually, people began petitioning the chancellor directly. By the late fifteenth century, the judicial system created by the chancellor to handle these petitions developed into an established court, Chancery. The chancellor remained at its head.

Chancery attracted a great number of petitions because it was not bound by the common-law court's rigid rules of procedure and law. For example, Chancery could hear a case even if it did not fit within an existing writ, could conduct hearings without a jury when one would be required in a common-law court, and could grant injunctions. Most important, however, Chancery was free to examine the particular facts of a case to determine the most equitable result, regardless of what the outcome would have been by applying the rules of law developed by the common-law courts. For this reason, Chancery was designated a court of equity, and the common-law courts were designated courts of law.

Because Chancery felt free to ignore the rules of the courts of law, two separate bodies of law and procedure developed. In fact, on the petition of a party who lost before a court of law, Chancery might overturn the result reached by that court. Chancery characterized its actions as buttressing, not circumventing, the courts of law by providing relief that otherwise would be unavailable. The judges of the courts of law were understandably skeptical, and the centuries during which this dual court system existed often were marked by a power struggle between them. In the nineteenth century, the courts were merged.

The American colonies and states followed a similar evolutionary path. Many of them established a dual judicial system of law and of equity, but these courts now have been merged with limited exceptions. However, the distinctions between them are still relevant. For example, the right to a jury trial in a civil case extends only to cases that were triable in courts of law. Thus, to decide whether a jury trial can be granted, a present-day court must determine whether the suit historically would have been brought in a court of law or in the court of equity. Similarly, if a litigant requests both a legal remedy (monetary damages) and an equitable remedy (injunctive relief), the jury will decide the legal issues and grant any money damages, and a judge will determine if equitable relief is warranted. Courts still also must deal occasionally with conflicting legal and equitable precedents and actions.

In addition to the dual court system, the American legal system has been influenced in many other important ways by the English system. The colonists adopted both the common-law system of judicially-created law and the doctrine of stare decisis. In the absence of a body of American judicial decisions, the colonial and early state courts relied on English judicial decisions to a greater or lesser degree. Over time, however, as the body of American decisions grew, American judges began to rely on those cases. Today, American courts infrequently cite English precedents.

The American adversarial system also is a direct descendant of the English system. In American trials, as in English trials, each party presents the merits of its case before a judge who acts as an impartial referee, rather than as an inquisitor. In many cases, the parties have a right to trial before a jury of their peers. The jury system also is an English tradition.

Although heavily influenced by the English legal system, the American system did not become a carbon copy. Colonial judges created a more simplified court system and eliminated many technicalities of the writ system. Early American judges also rejected those aspects of the common law that were inconsistent with American society. For example, most colonial courts rejected the English legal principle of primogeniture, by which the oldest son inherits all the family property to the exclusion of his siblings. Nevertheless, many of the most important aspects of the modern American system can be traced directly to the English.


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