No matter how wrong someone’s actions may seem to you, the only wrongs you can right in a court are those that can be tied to one or more causes of action. Positive law is full of cases, treaties, statutes, regulations, and constitutional provisions that can be made into a cause of action. If you have an agreement with Harold Hill that he will purchase seventy-six trombones from you and he fails to pay for them after you deliver, you will probably feel wronged, but a court will only act favorably on your complaint if you can show that his behavior gives you a cause of action based on some part of your state’s contract law. This case would give you a cause of action under the law of most states; unless Harold Hill had some legal excuse recognized by the applicable state’s contract law—such as his legal incompetence, his being less than eighteen years of age, his being drunk at the time the agreement was made, or his claim that the instruments were trumpets rather than trombones or that they were delivered too late to be of use to him—you could expect to recover some compensation for his breaching of your agreement with him.
An old saying in the law is that the law does not deal in trifles, or unimportant issues (in Latin, de minimis non curatlex). Not every wrong you may suffer in life will be a cause to bring a court action. If you are stood up for a Saturday night date and feel embarrassed or humiliated, you cannot recover anything in a court of law in the United States, as there is no cause of action (no basis in the positive law) that you can use in your complaint. If you are engaged to be married and your spouse-to-be bolts from the wedding ceremony, there are some states that do provide a legal basis on which to bring a lawsuit. “Breach of promise to marry” is recognized in several states, but most states have abolished this cause of action, either by judicial decision or by legislation. Whether a runaway bride or groom gives rise to a valid cause of action in the courts depends on whether the state courts still recognize and enforce this now-disappearing cause of action.
Your cause of action is thus based on existing laws, including decided cases. How closely your case “fits” with a prior decided case raises the question of precedent. As noted earlier in this chapter, the English common-law tradition placed great emphasis on precedent and what is called stare decisis. A court considering one case would feel obliged to decide that case in a way similar to previously decided cases. Written decisions of the most important cases had been spread throughout England (the common “realm”), and judges hoped to establish a somewhat predictable, consistent group of decisions.
The English legislature (Parliament) was not in the practice of establishing detailed statutes on crimes, torts, contracts, or property. Thus definitions and rules were left primarily to the courts. By their nature, courts could only decide one case at a time, but in doing so they would articulate holdings, or general rules, that would apply to later cases.
Suppose that one court had to decide whether an employer could fire an employee for no reason at all. Suppose that there were no statutes that applied to the facts: there was no contract between the employer and the employee, but the employee had worked for the employer for many years, and now a younger person was replacing him. The court, with no past guidelines, would have to decide whether the employee had stated a “cause of action” against the employer. If the court decided that the case was not legally actionable, it would dismiss the action. Future courts would then treat similar cases in a similar way. In the process, the court might make a holding that employers could fire employees for any reason or for no reason. This rule could be applied in the future should similar cases come up.
But suppose that an employer fired an employee for not committing perjury (lying on the witness stand in a court proceeding); the employer wanted the employee to cover up the company's criminal or unethical act. Suppose that, as in earlier cases, there were no applicable statutes and no contract of employment. Courts relying on a holding or precedent that “employers may fire employees for any reason or no reason” might rule against an employee seeking compensation for being fired for telling the truth on the witness stand. Or it might make an exception to the general rule, such as, “Employers may generally discharge employees for any reason or for no reason without incurring legal liability; however, employers will incur legal liability for firing an employee who refuses to lie on behalf of the employer in a court proceeding.”
In each case (the general rule and its exception), the common-law tradition calls for the court to explain the reasons for its ruling. In the case of the general rule, “freedom of choice” might be the major reason. In the case of the perjury exception, the efficiency of the judicial system and the requirements of citizenship might be used as reasons. Because the court’s “reasons” will be persuasive to some and not to others, there is inevitably a degree of subjectivity to judicial opinions. That is, reasonable people will disagree as to the persuasiveness of the reasoning a court may offer for its decision.
Written judicial opinions are thus a good playing field for developing critical thinking skills by identifying the issue in a case and examining the reasons for the court’s previous decision(s), or holding. What has the court actually decided, and why? Remember that a court, especially the US Supreme Court, is not only deciding one particular case but also setting down guidelines (in its holdings) for federal and state courts that encounter similar issues. Note that court cases often raise a variety of issues or questions to be resolved, and judges (and attorneys) will differ as to what the real issue in a case is. A holding is the court’s complete answer to an issue that is critical to deciding the case and thus gives guidance to the meaning of the case as a precedent for future cases.
Beyond the decision of the court, it is in looking at the court’s reasoning that you are most likely to understand what facts have been most significant to the court and what theories (schools of legal thought) each trial or appellate judge believes in. Because judges do not always agree on first principles (i.e., they subscribe to different schools of legal thought), there are many divided opinions in appellate opinions and in each US Supreme Court term.
There are different sources of law in the US legal system. The US Constitution is foundational; US statutory and common law cannot be inconsistent with its provisions. Congress creates statutory law (with the signature of the president), and courts will interpret constitutional law and statutory law. Where there is neither constitutional law nor statutory law, the courts function in the realm of common law. The same is true of law within the fifty states, each of which also has a constitution, or foundational law.
Both the federal government and the states have created administrative agencies. An agency only has the power that the legislature gives it. Within the scope of that power, an agency will often create regulations (see Administrative Law ), which have the same force and effect as statutes. Treaties are never negotiated and concluded by states, as the federal government has exclusive authority over relations with other nation-states. A treaty, once ratified by the Senate, has the same force and effect as a statute passed by Congress and signed into law by the president.
Constitutions, statutes, regulations, treaties, and court decisions can provide a legal basis in the positive law. You may believe you have been wronged, but for you to have a right that is enforceable in court, you must have something in the positive law that you can point to that will support a cause of action against your chosen defendant.
- Give one example of where common law was overridden by the passage of a federal statute.
- How does common law change or evolve without any action on the part of a legislature?
- Lindsey Paradise is not selected for her sorority of choice at the University of Kansas. She has spent all her time rushing that particular sorority, which chooses some of her friends but not her. She is disappointed and angry and wants to sue the sorority. What are her prospects of recovery in the legal system? Explain.