The Common Law in America, from Life in the USA: The Complete Guide for Immigrants and Americans

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Life in the USA
Government and Law
Lawyers and Litigation

The Common Law
Not all law in the United States begins with the legislatures, and even that law is always subject to interpretation by the courts. All the states in the United States (except Louisiana, which follows a French system) use a system of “common law,” based on traditional English law. When a law court must decide a case, unless specific legislation applies to the issue, the court must look at past cases for guidance. This is called “precedent.” The common law applies only to civil cases. In criminal cases, a person cannot be convicted of a crime unless they have broken a specific law as passed by a legislative body, that is, the crime is “on the books.”

Complexities. A lawyer arguing a case in a court, in addition to finding written laws in statute books, has to do research on past judicial decisions for the questions being argued. Schooled in this exacting tradition, the American lawyer develops a legal mind that handles detail very well. Because of the lack of uniformity, the law is so complicated that only lawyers can decipher it--often at a substantial hourly rate.

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