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The American Legal System: An Overview

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What's the difference between the federal and state court systems? Criminal and civil cases? Constitutional, statutory and administrative law? This brief overview hits the highlights.

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The American Legal System: An Overview

  1. 1. The American legal system An overview
  2. 2. Sources of law <ul><li>Constitutional law </li></ul><ul><ul><li>U.S. Constitution </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>State constitutions </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>May grant more rights than the U.S. Constitution, but not fewer </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Same-sex marriage in Massachusetts </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Judicial review </li></ul></ul>
  3. 3. Sources of law <ul><li>Constitutional law </li></ul><ul><li>Statutory law </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Congress </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>State legislatures </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Local authorities </li></ul></ul>
  4. 4. Sources of law <ul><li>Constitutional law </li></ul><ul><li>Statutory law </li></ul><ul><li>Administrative law </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Federal Communications Commission </li></ul></ul>
  5. 5. Criminal and civil law <ul><li>Criminal = offense against society </li></ul>
  6. 6. Criminal and civil law <ul><li>Criminal = offense against society </li></ul><ul><li>Civil = offense against individual(s) </li></ul>
  7. 7. Criminal and civil law <ul><li>Criminal = offense against society </li></ul><ul><li>Civil = offense against individual(s) </li></ul><ul><li>How would you categorize: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Obscenity? </li></ul></ul>
  8. 8. Criminal and civil law <ul><li>Criminal = offense against society </li></ul><ul><li>Civil = offense against individual(s) </li></ul><ul><li>How would you categorize: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Obscenity? </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Copyright infringement? </li></ul></ul>
  9. 9. Criminal and civil law <ul><li>Criminal = offense against society </li></ul><ul><li>Civil = offense against individual(s) </li></ul><ul><li>How would you categorize: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Obscenity? </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Copyright infringement? </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Reporting on the movement of troops in time of war? </li></ul></ul>
  10. 10. Criminal and civil law <ul><li>Criminal = offense against society </li></ul><ul><li>Civil = offense against individual(s) </li></ul><ul><li>How would you categorize: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Obscenity? </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Copyright infringement? </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Reporting on the movement of troops in time of war? </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Invasion of privacy? </li></ul></ul>
  11. 11. Types of civil law <ul><li>Contracts </li></ul>
  12. 12. Types of civil law <ul><li>Contracts </li></ul><ul><li>Torts </li></ul>
  13. 13. Types of civil law <ul><li>Contracts </li></ul><ul><li>Torts </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Common media torts: </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Libel </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Invasion of privacy </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Copyright infringement </li></ul></ul></ul>
  14. 14. Court systems U.S. Supreme Court U.S. Appeals Courts U.S. District Courts State Supreme Courts State Appeals Courts State District Courts
  15. 16. U.S. Supreme Court <ul><li>Final word on U.S. Constitution </li></ul>
  16. 17. U.S. Supreme Court <ul><li>Final word on U.S. Constitution </li></ul><ul><li>Takes cases through a writ of certiorari — “granting cert” </li></ul>
  17. 18. U.S. Supreme Court <ul><li>Final word on U.S. Constitution </li></ul><ul><li>Takes cases through a writ of certiorari — “granting cert” </li></ul><ul><li>Only four of the nine justices are needed to grant cert </li></ul>
  18. 19. U.S. Supreme Court <ul><li>Final word on U.S. Constitution </li></ul><ul><li>Takes cases through a writ of certiorari — “granting cert” </li></ul><ul><li>Only four of the nine justices are needed to grant cert </li></ul><ul><li>Chief justice is also administrative head of federal court system </li></ul>
  19. 20. U.S. Supreme Court (2011)
  20. 21. U.S. Supreme Court <ul><li>John Roberts, 56 Chief Justice </li></ul><ul><li>Antonin Scalia, 75 </li></ul><ul><li>Anthony Kennedy, 75 </li></ul><ul><li>Clarence Thomas, 63 </li></ul><ul><li>Ruth Bade Ginsburg, 78 </li></ul><ul><li>Stephen Breyer, 73 </li></ul><ul><li>Samuel Alito, 61 </li></ul><ul><li>Sonia Sotomayor, 57 </li></ul><ul><li>Elena Kagan, 51 </li></ul>
  21. 22. Jurisdiction <ul><li>Geographic </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Libel cases usually handled at state level </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>What if the parties are in different states? </li></ul></ul>
  22. 23. Jurisdiction <ul><li>Geographic </li></ul><ul><li>Subject matter </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Copyright always handled at federal level </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Obscenity can be handled at state or federal level </li></ul></ul>
  23. 24. Jurisdiction <ul><li>Geographic </li></ul><ul><li>Subject matter </li></ul><ul><li>Internet </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Cybersell of Florida and Arizona </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Yahoo! and French law </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>“ Libel tourism” </li></ul></ul>
  24. 25. The appeals process <ul><li>“ Justiciable controversy” </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Courts cannot rule on cases that are not before them </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>An exception: the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issues “advisory opinions” </li></ul></ul>
  25. 26. The appeals process <ul><li>“ Justiciable controversy” </li></ul><ul><li>Appeals courts do not retry cases </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Was the law correctly applied? </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Is the law constitutional? </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Rulings are decided on narrow grounds, and cases are usually sent back to lower court </li></ul></ul>
  26. 27. The appeals process <ul><li>“ Justiciable controversy” </li></ul><ul><li>Appeals courts do not retry cases </li></ul><ul><li>Judges must follow precedent </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Relevant higher-court ruling prevails </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Ruling from another district can be a guide </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>State and federal judges must consider each other’s rulings </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Doctrine of stare decisis </li></ul></ul>

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