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U.S. Legal System At A Glance

The Founding Fathers' desire to create a new form of government that prohibited those in power from violating the rights of individual citizens led to the writing of the Constitution of the United States. In addition to a federal system of governance, the Constitution grants individual states the right to govern themselves in certain matters. By developing a method of checks and balances, the writers of the Constitution devised the legal system that is used today.

The Federal System

The Constitution outlines the responsibility of the national government in governing the nation. National powers include: creating and maintaining armed forces, declaring war, printing money, regulating immigration, establishing foreign policy, and regulating interstate and international commerce.

To prevent tyrannical rule, the framers of the Constitution constructed a system of governmental checks and balances using three branches. The Legislative Branch, Congress, is responsible for making laws. The Executive Branch, the Presidency, is responsible for enforcing the laws and the Judicial Branch, or Federal Courts, interprets the law. Each Branch is checked by another branch. For example, Congress has the power to impeach a president while the President has the power to veto new legislation. The courts have the ability to declare Congressional or Presidential laws unconstitutional. This method of checks and balances provides the means to keep a single government branch from becoming too powerful.

The State Law System

All powers not granted to the federal government are granted to individual states. While states have their own constitutions and laws, no state law or constitution may conflict with the federal constitution. States have powers that the national government does not. These include: regulating intrastate commerce, establishing local governments, building and maintaining public schools, regulating laws for marriage and professional licenses, and writing corporation laws.

Civil and Criminal Law

There are two types of cases heard in judicial courts. Criminal courts have jurisdiction when a person has been accused of breaking a law.

Civil courts are typically the setting for lawsuits between citizens when no law has been broken. A citizen may determine that another is responsible for a personal injury or monetary loss and seeks to procure some type of remedy within the court system.

Common Legal Terms:

  1. Adjudication: A judgment rendered by the court.
  2. Claim: a series of allegations as a basis for seeking relief from the court.
  3. Class Action: A representative asserts the rights of numerous other persons in a lawsuit without having each class member actively participate.
  4. Common Law - Principles from the written opinions of judges, rather than laws enacted by legislation.
  5. Defendant: the person against whom a civil complaint or criminal charge has been filed.
  6. Opinion: Written documentation of a judge or judges when explaining a decision.
  7. Precedent: A previously decided case that is used to guide the decision of later cases.
  8. Tort: Varying causes of action in which a plaintiff alleges the defendant caused an injury.

("Legal information found on this page does not constitute legal advice.")

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