By Chesley Payne
In your high school civics courses, you learned that the source of our system of laws came from England. In general, this is true throughout the United States (An exception is Louisiana, which obtained its original system of laws from France). However, in our present system, we have two general bodies of law that guide our legal system. The first is statutory law. These are the laws everyone is familiar with as the body of law that consists of those statutes and ordinances passed by our elected representatives. Traffic laws, criminal laws and tax laws are all examples of statutory law. However, there is another, different system of laws that are the remnant of the legal system we inherited from England.
Common law is the name for the body of law that is based on judicial decisions. The idea is that judicial decisions by one court in a jurisdiction should be followed by other courts in the same jurisdiction to provide a predictable outcome for similar factual situations. In our system, common law stands as that body of law that “fills the gaps” in situations that statutory laws do not cover.
Usually, in the event of a conflict between common law and statutory law, statutory law will overrule common law. The most visible exception to this rule is the power of “judicial review” held by the U.S. Supreme Court. Under the doctrine of “judicial review,” the Supreme Court has the power to declare a statute void and deem it unconstitutional. However, the Supreme Court’s decision can be rendered ineffective by the passage of a new law by Congress that meets Constitutional standards or the addition of an amendment to the Constitution.
In this way, the legal field must keep informed of not only the activities of the various legislative activities, but also the activities of the judicial bodies of our state and nation. As you can imagine, an attorney’s ability to research how and which laws apply to a particular situation is one of the legal professional’s most important skills.