English Common Law
During medieval times, England drew legal insight from the Justinian Code (see 450-600 A.D., right). As it developed democratic institutions, its courts gained great legal influence. English jurists decided cases according to morality and custom; later, judges followed these decisions. They looked to the principle of the case and the reason of the judge. Over centuries, this developed into a body of law derived from judicial decisions. Our own legal system grew out of this body of law.
When the colonies declared independence, they kept much of the English common law, with several big differences. New laws came from Congress and state legislatures, and conformed to the U.S. and state constitutions. The written decisions of judges in various cases interpret these laws, and have grown into a rich tradition that guides America's lawyers and jurists today.
On March 4, 1789, the Constitution of the United States took effect. The first ten amendments, comprising the Bill of Rights, quickly followed. This great document establishes the architecture of our nation's government. There have been 27 amendments to the Constitution, but none has changed the basic structure of our government. Amendments XIII, XIV, and XV are often cited in court cases.
Amendment XIII (13th Amendment)
Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Amendment XIV (14th Amendment) [excerpt]
Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Section 2. Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice-President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.
Amendment XV (15th Amendment)
Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.