Posted on 4/23/18

Much of current U.S. law is predicated on English Common Law, which was a set of laws developed in England starting in the Middle Ages. Much of Common Law was targeted at criminals and is a source of criminal law. The concept of the Common Law is rooted in the Magna Carta, a document signed by King John in 1215 that bestowed some rights to nobles and provided for fairness through a trial. Note that England was not a democracy, so a king’s relinquishing of power was revolutionary.

The Common Law developed to become England’s legal system. When England created colonies in the United States, those colonies were governed by English Common Law. Even after the Colonists won the Revolutionary War in 1783 and cut ties with England, English Common Law remained the fabric of the justice system. Even today, the U.S. legal system cites English Common Law cases and laws to determine whether a ruling or law is proper.

Post-Revolutionary War

In the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, states employed English Common Law as the basis of their laws. At the time, there was no Federal government and no constitutional framework, so each state had the ability to impose laws at it saw fit. Nonetheless, states, in general, continued to use Common Law as the baseline, either by keeping the law as it was at Common Law or by modifying certain terms.

Jack Kevorkian

The use of English Common Law took an interesting turn in a Michigan courtroom during the 1990s. Dr Jack Kevorkian, a doctor who specialized in assisted suicide, faced charges of Common Law assisted suicide. The law was not part of the Michigan criminal code; instead, it was codified in England and the prosecution used that law in a US case based on English Common Law. During his trial on assisted suicide charges, Kevorkian, who never denied the action, increasingly shouted: “This is not a trial! This is a lynching! There is no law! No Law!” The court acquitted Kevorkian of the crime, noting that no such law was codified in Michigan at the time of the suicides. (Kevorkian was convicted on murder charges, which are codified under the Michigan code. The court handed him a 10 to 25-year sentence. He served seven and a half years in prison and was paroled in 2007).

Legislative Intent

When dissecting a law to determine whether it is applicable to a specific case, practitioners will look to the legislative intent of the law. They will look through the minutes of the legislature to understand the context of the law as well as the plain language of the law. For laws that have Common Law roots, a practitioner can also look to its source in England and to how English courts resolved and applied those laws. Common Law is the framework for many Texas criminal statutes, even though Texas was not an original colony. Statutes such as theft, false pretenses, larceny, and embezzlement all have roots in English Common Law.

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