Throughout every business day, American courts make decisions that collectively have an effect on thousands of Americans. Some decisions only affect the parties to a certain legal action whereas others tend to adjudicate legal principles, benefits and rights that affect virtually all United States citizens (Burnham, 2006). Without doubt, many Americans tend to agree with the rulings of the American courts whereas there are some instances where some people tend to agree with court decisions. Nevertheless, all Americans tend to embrace the legitimacy of these rulings, and the role of court as the final interpreter of the American law and legal system. Courts are central to the American legal system, although they do not form the entire system. Every day throughout the US, local, state and federal courts interpret laws, give a ruling in cases where there are disputes under laws, and sometimes even point out laws as infringing the basic protections that the Constitution guarantees all US citizens (Farber & Sherry, 2008). Simultaneously, millions of US citizens undertake their daily affairs without consulting the court system. For instance, two traders engaging in a contract and new couples buying their first home; all these people need enforceable common norms provided by the rule of law and guaranteed by the nation’s legal system (Farber & Sherry, 2008). The goal of this paper is to discuss the origins and characteristic of the law and the legal systems of the United States, and the functions and fields of the system of the law of the federal and state courts, and the constitutions and legal codes of the Republic and its constitutive states. In aIDition, the paper discusses how it all comes together to impact individuals and organizations in the American society.
Origins and Characteristics of the Law and Legal Systems of the United States
Before the implementation of the Constitution, the Articles of Confederation were used in governing the United States, wherein, the Congress, a single chamber legislature, stipulated all the functions of the national government. This implies that legislative and executive powers were not separated. The lack of a national judiciary was cited as a primary weakness associated with the Articles of Confederation (Friedman, 2005). As a result, delegates met during the Constitutional Convention in 1787 in Philadelphia and agreed on the need to establish a national judiciary. The first proposal handed during the Constitutional Convention was the Virginia Plan. This would have established both inferior federal courts and a Supreme Court. However, those opposing the Virginia Plan presented the New Jersey Plan, which suggested the establishment of one federal supreme tribunal. Advocates of the New Jersey Plan did not welcome the notion of lower federal courts and maintained that state courts could hear all cases during the first occasion and that a right of appeal to the Supreme Court would be adequate to safeguard national rights and result in uniform judgments all over the United States (Friedman, 2005). The conflict among nationalists and states’ rights advocates was aIDressed by compromises that typified the Constitutional Convention, which is found in Article III of the US constitution, and states, “The Judicial power of the US, shall be vested in a single Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts that the Congress may establish and ordain from time to time.”
After the ratification of the Constitution, there were concerns as to whether or not there was the need to establish lower federal courts or whether federal claims should be first forwarded to the state courts. This conflict resulted in two groups; with one group maintaining that the federal law should be presided over in the state courts first and later by the Supreme Court when on appeal only. The other group had suspicions on the parochial prejudice associated with state courts and feared the likelihood of unjust treatment of complainants from other states or countries. This debate resulted in the Judiciary Act of 1789, which formulated a judicial system comprising of a Supreme Court, which consisted of a Chief Justice and other five associated justices; 13 district courts, with each adjudicated by one district court; and three circuit courts, with each consisting of a district judge and two justices from the Supreme Court. This was followed by immediate exercising of the power to establish inferior federal courts, wherein Congress formed two sets of lower federal courts (Friedman, 2005).
The law and legal system of the US comprises of several layers of uncodified and codified forms of law; wherein the US Constitution is the most important and is the foundation of US federal government. The Constitution establishes the limits for the federal law, which comprises of constitutional treaties consented by Congress, case law established by the federal judiciary, constitutional regulations disseminated by the executive branch, and the constitutional acts of Congress (Burnham, 2006). Under the US legal system, the supreme law of the land is derived from the federal law and the Constitution, which preempts any conflicting territorial and state laws of the 50 U.S states. Nevertheless, the extent of federal preemption is constrained; this is because the federal power is limited in itself. Under the distinctive dual-sovereign system typified by American federalism, states are considered as plenary sovereigns whereas sovereignty at the federal level is limited by the supreme authority stipulated in the US Constitution. In fact, states are likely to give their citizens broader rights when compared to the rights guaranteed in the federal constitution provided they do not conflict with the federal constitutional rights (Friedman, 2005). As a result, most laws in the United States, particularly the living law of criminal, family, tort and contract law experiences by millions of Americans on a daily basis, comprises mainly of state law, which varies significantly amongst states. At both state and federal levels, US law and legal system was derived mainly from the common law associated with the English Law. However, the United States has deviated significantly from the English law with regard to procedure and substance, and has included several civil law innovations (Friedman, 2005).
Functions and Fields of the System of the Law of the United States
The law and legal system of the United States has the primary functions of despite resolution in order to maintain and restore social order; facilitate planning thorough predicting consequences of actions; educative functions through instilling and reflecting the values of the American society; and legitimizing function through reflecting the lack of other social institutions. In order to exercise these functions, the law and legal system of the United States has the main objectives of justice, speed, flexibility, stability and predictability (Farber & Sherry, 2008).
As a significant component of the American law and legal system, the Supreme Court has two primary functions. First, the Supreme Court must expound and interpret all Congressional enactments presented before it in appropriate cases. In this regard, the role of the Supreme Court is similar to the role of the state courts associated with undertaking the decisive interpretation of the state law. Second, the Supreme Court has the power, which supersedes all others courts, to evaluate the state and federal statutes and executive actions in order to make sure that they conform to the United States Constitution (Farber & Sherry, 2008). An inference from this observation is that the legal system of the United States helps in interpreting the law and applying it in cases presented before it in order to ensure that justice prevail and other objectives such as social order are achieved. The actions of the law and legal system in the United States affect individuals and organizations through various avenues such as the implementation of court rulings, criminal procedures, guaranteeing and protecting the rights of Americans, and resolving disputes. All these functions determine how organizations and individuals interrelate in the American society and how they perform their daily activities within the constructs of the law and legal system of the nation (Friedman, 2005).
The fields of American law can be categorized according to the levels and types of law. According to the levels, there are federal, state and local laws, whereas according to types, there are procedural and substantive laws. Procedural law comprises of criminal and civil procedure whereas substantive law comprises of criminal, contract and tort law.
One of the distinguishing features of the law and legal system in the United States is that there are different judicial systems at both federal and state levels, with each judicial system varying in terms of operation and function. This tends to increase the complexity of the US legal system. In aIDition, overlapping jurisdiction between state and federal law complicates further the functioning of the law and legal system used in the United States. Nevertheless, all court systems in the country are similar in terms of fundamental respects. For instance, US courts are the courts of general jurisdiction. Furthermore, the legal system is characterized by a pyramidal structure, which facilitates review and revision by higher level courts.
Burnham, W. (2006). Introduction to the Law and Legal System of the United States. St. Paul, MN: Thomson Wes.
Farber, D., & Sherry, S. (2008). Judgment Calls: Principle and Politics in Constitutional Law . New York: Oxford University Press.
Friedman, L. (2005). A History of American Law. New York: Touchstone.