Today there are literally millions of laws (and millions of lawsuits), there are laws covering virtually every field of human endeavor and the number is growing. This growth is not only numerical, it is substantive. As the law grows, it changes because courts are constantly interpreting laws by applying them to particular circumstances. For this reason law has been characterized as a seamless web. What follows is a general framework for understanding the legal system, followed by basic introductions to selected legal areas.
The legal system of the United States is based on the common law of England. Even though the colonies revolted against the British empire, they retained its legal institutions. In fact, the colonists revolted precisely because they believed that their common law rights were being taken away. Today English law is still the law of the land in some states. The California civil code (Section 22.2) states that the "common law of England, so far as it is not repugnant to or inconsistent with the Constitution of the United States, or Constitution or laws of this state, is the rule of decision in all the courts of this state."
The distinguishing features of the common law are that it is based on a system of rights and most of the law is judge-made. Rights are an abstract concept that can be confusing, but the basic idea is straightforward. Rights can be thought of as domains or spheres in which people are free to act without interference. The common law evolved to protect and define this "space." The legal categories that most people are familiar with are common law rights. Property defines the right to possess and own things. Contracts deal with the transfer and exchange of rights. Torts protect rights from accidents and aggression.
The other distinguishing characteristic of the common law is that it is largely unwritten. Judges "create" the law by resolving disputes according to general principles. Thus, decisions reached in cases are very important (that is what is in all those law books) and actually make up most of the law. For example, the common law of nuisance may say that people cannot use their property in a way that unreasonably interferes with the property rights of their neighbors. As the common law developed various uses were deemed to be unreasonable: excessive noise, bizarre smells and barking dogs. Fairly recently courts have been asked to decide whether gigantic Christmas light displays were nuisances, or whether blocking sunlight to a neighbors solar power grid was unreasonable. Thus instead of having a specific rules prohibiting Christmas lights and baying Beagles, a general rule was applied that is flexible enough to cover many different situations.
An early Chief Justice on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, wrote: "It is one of the great merits and advantages of the common law, that... when the practice and course of business... should cease or change, the common law consists of a few broad and comprehensive principles, founded on reason, natural justice, and enlightened public policy, modified and adapted to the circumstances of all particular cases which fall within it."Norway Plains Co. v. Boston & Maine RR, 67 Mass 263 (1854).
The common law stands in contrast with the civil law systems, which are found throughout Western Europe. These systems are characterized by their reliance on statutes and written rules rather case law. The civil law systems stem from a great collection of laws that was compiled under the Roman Emperor Justinian around 529 A.D. called the Corpus juris civilis. His idea was to codify, or write down all legal rules in a systematic way. This code was a primary source of law until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when countries began to promulgate national codes in the Roman tradition. The most famous of these is the Code Civil, or Code Napoleon issued in 1804 in France. The state of Louisiana is unique in the United States because its civil code is largely derived from the Code Napoleon.
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