Introduction to the Federal Judiciary

Blackstone’s Four Categories of English Law

In the 1760s, William Blackstone dramatically simplified the teaching and understanding of the common law.  His treatise, Commentaries on the Laws of England, described laws in four basic categories:   

Rights of Persons.  The law and procedures governing relationships, such as marriage, employment, and guardians and their wards. 

Rights of Things.  The law and procedures governing real estate and personal property.

Public wrongs.  The law and procedures governing crimes, both major crimes (felonies) and minor crimes (misdemeanors) 

Private wrongs.  The law and procedures governing contracts and torts (torts are obligations and duties owed to others even in the absence of contract, such as the duty not to act negligently).       

The English System of Courts

Complications and Convulsions

In addition to classifying the law in comparatively simple ways, Blackstone described England’s complicated system of courts for hearing and deciding cases.  In broad terms, he described those courts as places “wherein justice is judicially administered.”  By the mid-18th century, England had what Blackstone termed a “prodigious variety” of courts.  The two primary court systems were:  

Law courts. These courts followed the common law and used juries to hear evidence and decide the facts.  Judges were responsible for deciding the legal consequences of the facts found by juries.  Crown courts were courts of general jurisdiction, with power to hear and decide both civil and criminal cases, and decide appeals from decisions of courts of common pleas.  Courts of common pleas, by contrast, provided “speedy, universal, and impartial administration of justice between subject and subject,” including civil matters and low-level crimes. 

Equity courts.  This system of courts was presided over by the crown’s Lord Chancellor, the “keeper of the King’s conscience.”  Courts of equity operated under a specialized set of rules and procedures.  Juries were not used.  Judges exercising equitable powers had power to order remedies not available in courts of law, but only if the party seeking equity met complicated pleading and proof requirements.  While courts of law had an obligation to treat all parties the same in imposing legal remedies, courts of equity existed to mitigate the harsh application of legal rules in certain situations.  For example, at common law, the remedy for a breach of contract was money (known as compensatory damages).  In equity, a judge could instead order a party to perform its contractual obligations (known as specific performance).   

A Maze of Highly Specialized Courts

Disputes between courts of law and equity over which court had jurisdiction, or power, to decide cases were not uncommon.  Some litigation could be tied up in English courts for years as one set of courts issued decisions that annulled the decisions of others.  Ultimately, however, the House of Lords was to resolve all conflicts in its role as the top appellate court.  

By Blackstone’s time England also had developed a maze of highly specialized and local courts. There were admiralty courts, for example, with jurisdiction limited to cases involving shipping and mercantile cases.  At the local level, there were courts that specialized in family and probate matters, usually with wide latitude to achieve equity.  Large manors had their own private court systems, as did churches and merchants.  Each of these courts developed its unique set of procedural rules, resulting in a daunting array of courts and processes for resolving disputes.

England’s system of institutional courts did not mean that judges did their work in isolation from the other branches.  As Blackstone explained, crown courts derived their powers from the crown and were “the medium by which [the Crown] administers the laws.”  

“In all these courts the king is supposed in contemplation of law to be always present; but as that is in fact impossible, he is there represented by his judges, whose power is only an emanation of the royal prerogative.”

Legislators also had a hand in judging.  The House of Lords, for example, sat as a trial court for peers of the realm and had authority to decide appeals from lower courts.  Moreover, it was not uncommon for the Crown to consult with judges on difficult and doubtful cases.  Some judges served on the privy council, the crown’s advisory body, while others were members of Parliament.

Public Liberty and Separation of Powers

Blackstone viewed the English judicial system as integral to the maintenance of the proper balance of power among monarchic, aristocratic and democratic elements in English society.  He believed that no element of society or government should “improperly” interfere in the lives of the other elements.  Accordingly, he contended, the administration of justice should be, in some degree, “separated both from the legislative and also from the executive power.”   The salutary result of proper balance, he claimed, was “public liberty.”