The United States Law: Federal and State Jurisdiction

Subject: Law
Pages: 10
Words: 2755
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Study level: PhD

The law of the United States is important to be discussed in detail because the principles of the legal system followed in the country can explain how the law can influence individuals and organizations. The origins of the U.S. law and legal system are in the law that was followed in the medieval Britain (Farnsworth, 2010, p. 24). The American colonies followed the common law principles typical for the British legal system. However, after declaring the independence in 1776, the colonies adopted the U.S. Constitution in 1789 as well as different constitutions for each state (Rabban, 2012, p. 54). As a result, the common law characteristic for the legal system of Britain was expanded with the principles of the constitutional law. Furthermore, development of the state demonstrated the necessity of adopting the statutory law in order to control the progress of society regarding the prescribed rules. Much attention was also paid to dividing federal and state courts in order to guarantee the sovereignty of separate states in the country (Johns & Perschbacher, 2012; Schubert, 2011). In this context, the legal system in the United States should be discussed as the multilevel system that is originated from the common law of Britain, but it is also based on the principles of the constitutional law and statutory law adopted in America after the independence proclamation. This paper aims to discuss the origins, development, and characteristics of the legal system in the United States; to explain the functions of the system with references to the U.S. federal and state courts; and to discuss the aspects of the common and statutory law in terms of the legal system’s role for individuals, society, and organizations.

The legal system of the United States was originally adapted from the British pattern where the focus was on the common or judge-made law. The colonies of Britain adopted specific statutes according to which they had to follow the common law principles. The only state that did not adopt the common law system was Louisiana (Friedman, 2010, p. 89). However, Von Mehren and Murray focus on the fact that “the English common law was never applied fully and without modification in the colonies” (Von Mehren & Murray, 2007, p. 34). It was expected that the authorities in the American colonies would promote the principles followed by the magistrates in Britain (Farnsworth, 2010, p. 29). Thus, according to the British law, the debatable issues in the legal system of the country were traditionally resolved with the focus on finding solutions from the past experience related to the similar situation. Precedents and traditions played the key role in influencing the decisions of judges according to the Doctrine of Stare Decisis followed in Britain since the 13th century (Johns & Perschbacher, 2012, p. 24). Thus, the common law system was the only pattern followed in the United States, except Louisiana, till the Revolutionary War. Then, the authorities focused on the necessity to adopt statutes as specific regulations in the United States. Furthermore, in order to guarantee the focus on civil liberties of citizens, the jury system was adopted and improved in America (Schubert, 2011). All these improvements in the legal system were oriented to creating the strong state governed by the law. The critical addition to the legal system of the United States was the Constitution, and its adoption was a significant event in the legal history of the country (Rabban, 2012, p. 34). As a result, the main sources of the U.S. law in the 18th-19th centuries were the common law, constitutional law, and statutory law.

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In this context, it is important to concentrate on the aspects of the common law and statutory law in the legal system of the country. Common law in the United States provided judges with the power to interpret cases and use the precedent only as guidelines. As a result, the focus was on the individual character of the case, and much attention was paid to the appropriateness of the past decisions in order to apply them to the aspects of the discussed case. Furthermore, the common law was used not only as the system for discussing the legal cases in courts but also as the complex legal system of the country in contrast to the civil law system (Farnsworth, 2010). However, the development of the U.S. common law system was a prolonged process, as a result of which the U.S. legal system applied such features of the civil law system as the focus on prescribed regulations in the form of statutes (Steilen, 2011, p. 283). The common law system related to judges’ decisions cannot be discussed as out-of-date or static even today because it is rather responsive in terms of discussing the cases of individuals, and it is supported with statutes that regulate the interpretations of the U.S. law in court cases.

If in the 18th centuries, the main focus was on the development of the common law, the 19th century demonstrated the necessity of focusing on the statutory law. The first U.S. statutory laws were established in the Congress after the Revolutionary War (Schubert, 2011). This step meant that the American society needed specific regulations or statutes in order to prescribe the aspects of the behavior in the society and to determine certain sanctions for subversive actions. If the common law is based on precedents and past cases as well as on interpretations and decisions of judges, the statutory laws result from legislative acts, and they are effective to regulate the aspects of the social life where the strict control is necessary (Strong, 2012, p. 665). Therefore, federal, state, and local statutory laws regulate the aspects associated with the progress of social groups in the United States. The evolution of the U.S. legal system from the 18th century demonstrated the necessity of focusing not only on traditions and precedents but also on specific codes in order to guide and control people’ actions and prevent crimes. As a result, the law was discussed as a set of rules promoted by the federal, state, and local authorities to control actions and determine specific sanctions (Steilen, 2011, p. 283). From this point, in order to focus on the sanctity of law, it was necessary to discuss individuals’ cases in courts with the focus on the common law principles and regulate the life of the society with the focus on the statutory laws. Thus, today, the American law can be discussed as mainly statutory in its nature in spite of the fact that the whole legal system is based on the principles of the common law that has its origins in Britain.

The U.S. Federal and State Jurisdiction and Courts

In order to understand the important principles of dividing the federal and state jurisdiction in the United States and functions of the federal and state courts, it is also important to refer to the common and statutory law. The proclamation of the U.S. independence meant the creation of the specific federation of sovereign states that were discussed as independent units that could have their Constitution, courts, and statutes to regulate the actions in the state. Therefore, speaking about the U.S. law that is used in the citizens’ everyday life, people often mean the principles of the state law, according to which the life of the Americans is regulated and according to which the decisions are declared in state courts (Farnsworth, 2010; Rabban, 2012). As a result, the functions of the U.S. legal system need to be analyzed in the context of discussing the division of powers between federal and state courts.

The fact that there are separate state governments in the USA explains the need for separate state courts in order to discuss cases according to the principles of the common law and specific statutes adopted in different states. Focusing on the judicial branch in states, it is necessary to set differences between the functions of the state and federal courts. State courts enforce statutes when it is important to provide regulations for all citizens of the state, and state courts also refer to the common law when it is necessary to discuss the individual cases (Bellia, 2006, p. 1528). As a result, the majority of cases are discussed in state courts, and these courts are divided into trial and appellate courts. Thus, when it is important to appellate the judge’s decision, the cases are discussed in appellate courts (Haire, 2004, p. 117). Consequently, a limited number of cases can be tried in federal courts. It is important to note that federal courts discuss only cases that are of federal importance and that involve parties from different states. The U.S. Supreme Court is the main federal court that is established according to the U.S. Constitution, and the other federal courts include the U.S. district courts as well as the U.S. circuit courts of appeals (Schubert, 2011). While discussing the division of the legal and court system in the United States from this perspective, it is significant to note that the hierarchy of federal courts guarantees the protection of citizens’ rights and liberties if the case is inadequately solved in the state supreme courts, and if the further appellation is necessary. In this situation, the discussion of the case by the U.S. district courts is possible.

Although the law is most obviously present and followed in state and federal courts, it is important to focus on the constitutions and legal codes as the sources of the law in the country. Referring to the constitutional law in the United States, the presence of the U.S. Constitutions and state constitutions should be taken into account while discussing the characteristics of the legal system. The U.S. Constitution is the source of the federal constitutional law that is followed in all states of the United States because it determines the principles of the federal structure and government in the country as well as liberties of citizens (Johns & Perschbacher, 2012; Schubert, 2011). However, it is important to mention that states as sovereign units also adopted their constitutions in order to regulate the state development and resolution of social questions.

In addition to the constitutional law, there is a division regarding the statutory law typical for the states of the country. Thus, states refer to their own legislative branches in order to develop and enact statutes that are important to propose regulations for many aspects of the social life (Friedman, 2010). The necessity of statutes collected in state and federal legal codes was identified in the 19th century because the common law was discussed as not enough to regulate the society in the United States. According to Von Mehren and Murray, “a codification ideal has at times attracted American jurists” (Von Mehren & Murray, 2007, p. 16). Thus, the precedents followed by the judges in courts during the discussion of cases were effective to determine the penalty for the act, but the additional regulatory measures were necessary. The American nation differed in its approaches to organizing the social life from other nations significantly, and the structure of the federation was rather unique. As a result, the authorities focused on the necessity of providing the legislative organs with more powers for developing and enacting state and federal statutes. The first attempts to propose the compiled statutes and codify the law were made in the 1870s. Finally, the United States Code was approved by the Congress as the compilation of codified laws and statutes in 1926 (Schubert, 2011, p. 72). In this context, the authorities understood the importance of compiling all the federal statutes in order to organize the legal regulation in the country effectively.

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The U.S. law and legal system are often discussed by scholars and experts as complex because of the necessary division of powers between state and federal legislative organs and courts. However, this division provides the Americans with more civil liberties and guarantees the protection of their rights. First, the reason to discuss the legal system of the United States as advantageous for individuals and society is the presence of several sources of law. In this context, it is possible to rely on the discussion of individual cases with references to the common law (Farnsworth, 2010). The cases that involve individuals are usually discussed in state courts by juries and judges, and this approach guarantees that the most appropriate decision will be proposed with references to the precedents appropriate for the case. Individuals receive the advantages when their cases are discussed by twelve jurors and the decision is made by the judge referring to the specific details of the case (Strong, 2012, p. 662). While focusing on the discussion of cases in which organizations are involved, it is important to refer to the administrative law as one more source of the law in the United States (Rabban, 2012). The use of statutory law is also important because statutes determine for persons and organizations the limits to prevent the illegal acts. The law can be discussed as working for the needs of the society when there are definite statutes and codes that are used as norms for the legal social development.

While referring to the functions of courts and other elements of the legal system in the United States, it is important to pay attention to the fact that the focus on dividing the state and federal courts is important to guarantee legitimacy of court decisions because of the focus on particular state statutes and past cases. State courts usually discuss all the cases in the concrete state, and there few possibilities to appeal in order to initiate the discussion of the case in the federal courts (Bellia, 2006, p. 1512; Friedman, 2010). Thus, “since the early twentieth century, American courts have increasingly turned to the promulgation of generalized legislation-like rules to govern court procedure and related matters” (Von Mehren & Murray, 2007, p. 19). On the one hand, this approach is good to guarantee the legislative independence of states in the country and regulate the society according to the principles of the state statutory law. On the other hand, the issue of democratic rule-making can be challenged with references to the discussion of cases only in state courts because judges in state courts are limited by the principle of hierarchy and by the previous decisions made in the court (Johns & Perschbacher, 2012). The problem is in the fact that judges in lower courts are obliged to follow the decisions on precedents declared in higher courts even if the decision is inadequate. Furthermore, it is important to refer to decisions made in the concrete court on similar cases (Von Mehren & Murray, 2007, p. 9). As a result, an individual can become the victim of the drawback in the common law system. Therefore, the principles of statutory law are actively adopted in state and federal courts of the country today.


In order to understand the aspects of the modern legal systems of the United States, it is necessary to focus on explaining the system’s origins and development that influenced the specific characteristic features of the U.S. law. First, the grounds of the modern U.S. legal system are in the British common law that was adopted by the American colonies. However, the development of the nation led to the establishment of the specific principles of the law. The focus on the judge-made law was changed with the further focus on the statutory law. As a result, today, the legal system of the country functions in relation to such different principles as common law and statutory law in addition to the constitutional and administrative law. All these factors are also reflected in the approach to distributing the power between the federal and state organs. The specifics of the American federal and state courts’ jurisprudence can be discussed as influencing the individuals, organizations, and society both positively and negatively. The reason is that the combination of the common law and statutory law as well as the focus on the constitutional law can provide individuals with more liberties or, instead, limit their rights because of the dependence on precedent. In this case, judges play the important role in the legal system of the United States, and much attention is paid to the principles of the democratic rule-making in order to protect citizens and regulate the society’s development in legal terms.


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