At both the federal and state levels, the law of the United States was mainly derived from the common law system of English law, which was in force at the time of the Revolutionary War. However, U.S. law has diverged greatly from its English ancestor both in terms of substance and procedure. It has incorporated a number of civil law innovations.
In America, the law system came from Great Britain. The settlers of the original thirteen colonies came from Europe, and they brought with them their own set of rules and principles to be used in their new society.
The English common law was the system of law in England at that time and was quickly adopted throughout the colonies. The English common law is rooted in centuries of English history. Much of the common law was formed in the years between the Norman Conquest of England in the early 11th century and the settlement of the American colonies in the early 17th century.
English Common Law
The English common law is based on a cultural system of settling disputes through local customs. The early tribes of England each held their own set of customs, but this system became increasingly formalized as those early tribal peoples came together and organized. These ancient customs are the basic principles that eventually became part of the American system of justice.
Under English common law, disputes between two parties were handled on a case-by-case basis. However, the decision-maker did not act without guidance. The decision-maker was required to look too similar, previously decided cases, and use those established guidelines and traditions. The customs of England were built upon and expanded for centuries, all through court decisions. By carrying forward and preserving these customs, the courts assumed that the law was truly ‘common’ to all.
Impact of Precedent—The Principle of Stare Decisis
The defining principle of common law is the requirement that courts follow decisions of higher-level courts within the same jurisdiction. It is from this legacy of stare decisis that a somewhat predictable, consistent body of law has emerged.
Court level or hierarchy defines to a great degree the extent to which a decision by one court will have a binding effect on another court. The federal court system, for instance, is based on a three-tiered structure, in which the United States District Courts are the trial-level courts; the United States Court of Appeals is the first level court of appeal; and the United States Supreme Court is the final arbiter of the law.
The term “jurisdiction” has two important meanings in American law. One meaning of “jurisdiction” refers to the formal power of a court to exercise judicial authority over a particular matter. Although the term most often is used in connection with the jurisdiction of a court over particular matters, one may also speak of matters being within or beyond the jurisdiction of any other governmental entity.
Second, the federal court system is based on a system of “jurisdictions,” the geographic distribution of courts of particular levels. For instance, while there is only one Supreme Court, the court of appeals is divided into 13 circuits, and there are 94 district courts. In addition, each state court system comprises its own “jurisdiction.” As indicated above, the jurisdiction in which a case arose will determine which courts’ decisions will be binding precedents.
Common-Law as Differentiated from Civil Law
The American system is a “common law” system, which relies heavily on court precedent in formal adjudications. In our common law system, even when a statute is at issue, judicial determinations in earlier court cases are extremely critical to the court’s resolution of the matter before it.
Civil law systems rely less on court precedent and more on codes, which explicitly provide rules of decision for many specific disputes. When a judge needs to go beyond the letter of code in disposing of a dispute, the judge’s resolution will not become binding or perhaps even relevant in subsequent determinations involving other parties.