America’s colonial courts and, later, its constitution writers, also were influenced greatly by the English legal system. England is known as a common-law system of justice. A simple definition of the common law is the judge-made rules that emerge from decisions in individual cases. Those rules embody a country’s customs, traditions, reasoning, and logic. The common law presumes that judges have the power to make law in the absence of legislatively enacted statutes (such as defining various crimes and the elements of those crimes), as well as the power to interpret the meaning of statutes that legislatures do enact. Once rules are established, judges as well as others are expected to follow them. Hence, previous decisions establish the foundation for the next case, reflecting the principle that judges and the the law should treat litigants the same. The legal phrase for reliance on precedents from the past to decide current conflicts is known as stare decisis (literally translated as “let the decision stand”). However, when common-law judges encounter a case for which previous rulings are not satisfactory because of changed circumstances, or because those rulings no longer are deemed reasonable, they have authority to modify the holdings of the past. Although it is not static, the tends to evolve slowly.
This simple description of the common law belies its vast complexity in operation. Before the Norman Invasion of 1066, England had been highly decentralized and that decentralization was reflected in a specialized set of courts that served a variety of needs, from merchants and church courts to manorial, county and royal courts.
After the Norman Invasion, William the Conqueror undertook to centralize the administration of the law in England. By the 15th Century four primary courts were in operation: Courts of Common Pleas to resolve civil disputes, Kings Bench courts to handle crimes and breaches of the peace, Exchequer courts to manage the king’s property and collect revenues, and Chancery courts to administer equity. Equity refers to the power of judges to base decisions on principles of fairness and justice in situations in which rigid application of the rules of common law would be too harsh.
For centuries, legal scholars compiled treatises summarizing the rules and intricacies of the law as it had evolved in England. Most treatises were difficult to understand, although they accurately portrayed the common law as a dizzying labyrinth of legal procedures and rules with complicated pleading requirements.