An introduction to the American judicial system

The American system of laws and courts provides an effective way for individuals and businesses to resolve disputes fairly. This system relies on consistency, predictability and transparency.

The cornerstone of our democracy

Our legal system is designed to treat everyone equally under the law, regardless of income, race or beliefs. It is the cornerstone of our democracy. Fair and equal protection for all citizens requires a judicial system that is impartial and free from external influence. Our judicial system exists to serve the community by providing a fair means of resolving disputes.

The judicial system ensures that the Constitution, statutes and laws are upheld regardless of popular opinion. Judges uphold the rule of law. They do not represent any geographic area or any political party, special-interest group, campaign contributor or view of the majority. It is the only branch of government expected to perform its constitutional responsibility free from such influences.

Laws are not easy to interpret and that is why appellate courts operate in every state, to ensure a fair and consistent application of law. Unlike trial-court decisions that are not binding in any other court, appellate-court decisions set binding precedent that must be respected by the lower courts.

Rooted in history

People have always needed a way to settle their disputes. As western civilizations matured, they developed an orderly system to resolve conflicts. The court of law system evolved prior to a legislative branch of government, with a “body of law” called common law, which defined both the rights of the people and the government and the responsibilities they owe each other.

The English pilgrims brought this common law orderly way of settling disputes with them as they settled the American colonies. The English common law developed into American common law over time. The U. S. constitution and later, the state constitutions and statues replaced much of American common law. Even today, courts continue to look to it for guidance if no statute defines the rights and responsibilities in a particular case.

Adapted from Oregon Judicial Department

A beacon for the world

Developing democracies look to the United States’ democratic principles and separate branches of government as a model and guide. The Multnomah Bar Association has met with lawyers, judges, journalists, university professors and other civic leaders from a variety of countries, including Russia, China and Iraq brought to Oregon by the World Affairs Council of Oregon. The international visitors came to learn more about the administration of justice in the U. S. and the “balance of powers” within our government. Please visit the World Affairs Council website for more information about the international program.