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American law has its roots in the law of England, and our legal system is known as Anglo-American law. When the colonists arrived here they came as English citizens entitled to all the rights of Englishmen. Thus, they brought with them the legal structure of that country: its unwritten constitution, including the protections of the Magna Carta; the system of trial and appellate courts; and, most important to us as law students, the legal principles enunciated and recorded in the opinions of the courts. These opinions, a great body of law much more voluminous than all the rest, form the basis of our studies. Collectively, these cases are referred to as the common law.
Today, we do not actually study very many of these old cases; occasionally we come across one, however, that is still a significant landmark. But there are now so many thousands of American cases to choose from that the casebook editor usually opts for cases that give a more modern flavor to the work. Our American cases are sometimes referred to as American common law.
One thing to keep in mind for when you may be writing a legal argument is that it is always proper to cite one of these old English cases, either for direct application of its principle, for use in analogical reasoning, or for historical enhancement of your position. American common law includes all of the law of England (constitutional, statutory and common) in existence immediately before July 4, 1776, when our Declaration of Independence was signed. Today, many common law principles, both English and American, have been enacted into topically organized statutes known as codes. And many states have express statutes providing that there are no common law crimes in those states.
Despite such statutory pronouncements, our courts will nevertheless look closely at common law principles and historical background in interpreting the meaning of current legislation. Many law students do not realize that the true function of a prosecuting attorney is not to try to win every case at any cost; rather, it should be only to use the law to insure that justice is enforced, totally within the limits of the system.
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