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Law & Policy


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


American Legal System

The American Legal System: An Introduction by Albert P. Melone, Allan Karnes (Roxbury) All individuals living in the United States have good reason to study the legal system. Legal institutions influence us in a myriad of ways. The law affects everything from how we conduct our personal lives to how we interact in the wider political and business environ­ments. After all, the law has teeth and it can bite. It is little wonder that for decades undergraduate students have sought course work in the American legal system. Such courses have been part of political science programs offering pre-law training, business curricula as law relates to commerce, criminal justice programs, paralegal studies, and more recently, free-standing legal studies programs.

Surveying the legal system is a daunting task because it is a compli­cated and many-faceted field of study. Most textbook authors settle on the justifiably proximate goal of presenting a survey of the subject mat­ter emphasizing black-letter legal rules that students are asked to mem­orize. Too often, however, students obtain little understanding of the assumptions, processes, and consequences that attend such norms. To be sure, knowing the legal rules is important and a worthy near-term goal for students to attain. In writing this textbook, however, our goal was to cast an intellectually wider net. We sought to provide students with the main outlines of legal norms in American society. In addition, we wanted to give students a broad perspective on the important topic of how the law is a manifestation of social values and how the legal sys­tem is part of the much larger political, economic, social, and business environment.

Our text may be used in a wide variety of academic departments. For example, political science and criminal justice instructors may find our text particularly useful because, unlike other introduction to law texts, we nest our exposition of particular legal subfields within the broader context of American constitutional law, federalism, and the protection of civil rights and liberties. We also address how judges make decisions by providing competing explanations from both nor­mative and empirical perspectives.

We designed this text as an alternative for professors in business administration programs who want to offer their students a broader view of the legal environment. We offer chapters on aspects of the law governing the conduct of business, such as negotiable instruments, se­cured transactions, employee discrimination, securities regulation, an­titrust law, contracts, and federal income taxation. Unlike typical busi­ness law texts, however, our text also includes substantive chapters on criminal conduct, property, and interpersonal relations as well as pro­viding a political context for understanding that law and government are two sides of the same coin. Many instructors who wish to provide their students with a realistic understanding of the business world real­ize that this goal is best served when students are made familiar with all aspects of law and government. We trust that this goal is facilitated by our treatment throughout the text of the main contours of the Amer­ican system of constitutional government.

This book may also serve as an introductory text for legal studies and paralegal programs. Social scientists and humanists will find this text useful because it raises important social, economic, and political issues in both real and hypothetical situations. Moreover, these con­flicts are resolved in a variety of national and state jurisdictions, not just by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In some academic disciplines, the law is treated as divisible into separate intellectual compartments. Political science, for example, concentrates on the important public law topics of constitutional and administrative law. But private law topics such as torts, contracts, and property law, for instance, are also important subjects for study be­cause legal institutions are employed to resolve conflicts that vitally in­fluence how private parties and businesses conduct their affairs. We believe that if students are to gain a realistic appreciation for the entire American legal system they must be familiar with the basic assump­tions, processes and norms of private and public law, and civil and criminal law. Armed with this basic knowledge, they will then be well equipped to concentrate on specialized legal topics, such as criminal law, constitutional law, administrative law, a variety of business law subjects, and paralegal topics.

We divide our book into four major parts with 16 chapters. Part I introduces students to terms and concepts necessary for understanding the legal system, the legitimacy and limits of court jurisdiction and au­thority, the organization of the court system, and central issues sur­rounding the matter of judicial interpretation of case law, statutory law and constitutions, and various social science explanations of judicial decision-making.

Part II centers on legal processes, with civil suits for money dam­ages serving as the paradigmatic example. Successive chapters com­pare and contrast equity processes, criminal processes, and adminis­trative processes to civil suits for money damages. The last chapter in this part of the book delineates the various facets of alternative dispute resolution as a supplement and challenge to existing formal legal pro­cesses. Our experience teaches us that when students compare and contrast the various types of legal processes, they best understand how and why the legal system operates as it does. This is the realm of civil and criminal procedure, and it is our experience that procedure can be taught to students in ordinary language. Along the way, students are equipped with a working knowledge of the importance of different legal processes and procedural rights within our legal system.

Part III contains chapters on the substantive legal topics of torts, property, criminal law, and family law. All of these substantive law chapters include a section tracing the modern substantive law to its common law roots. We also include sections on evolving legal issues in­cluding product liability, tort reform, copyright infringement, victim­less crimes, youthful offenders, artificial conception of human life, and same-sex marriages. The chapter on property highlights how the right to present and future possession of real property can be divided and as­signed. We have taken this approach to better prepare students who plan to enter law school. First-year property law courses concentrate on real property, especially future interests, but students typically struggle to master this area of the law. By concentrating our coverage on real property issues, students who have had courses that employ our text should be better prepared than most.

Finally, in Part IV of the book we treat the law governing the world of business: contracts, business regulation by government, and taxa­tion. Depending upon the goals for each course, instructors may want to assign all or some of these chapters-as they may do for any other chapters from each of the other parts of this book. Indeed, this book is designed to permit instructors to assign the various parts of the text in any order that suits their purposes without causing undue learning dis­continuities. For example, instructors may want to assign Chapter 7 on criminal processes together with Chapter 13, the substantive criminal law chapter.

To illustrate general and specific substantive points as they arise, we have deliberately interspersed edited court opinions within the body of the text. We did so in the hope that students will internalize the lessons as they encounter them in the text. Within each of the edited court opinions we signify the omission of words, phrases, lines, or paragraphs by the use of ellipsis points, simply called dots. Three dots indicate an omission within a sentence or fragment of a sentence; we indicate omissions of whole sentences or more by the usual three ellip­sis dots preceded by period signs. We usually deleted footnotes found in the original unedited opinions, and we did the same for many in-text references to cases and statutes. In addition, brief summaries of some landmark and significant court opinions appear within the body of the text in boxed format as we discuss them in the text. This writing strategy permits us to bring to the attention of students important cases without burdening them with excessive reading.

We trust that the edited court opinions are not so numerous that students will find the task overwhelming. We anticipate that instruc­tors will assign at least some edited cases for briefing and class discus­sion. At the end of Chapter 1, we provide a model brief accompanying an edited US. Supreme Court opinion. By briefing court opinions found in this text, students will become familiar with and competent in the fine art of brief writing. Armed with the ability to read and brief court opinions, they will then be able to use this important learning tool in more advanced undergraduate courses, in advanced graduate courses, or as professional law students.

The court opinions as they appear in the text meet two criteria. First, the cases have historical and legal significance and they are likely to be of contemporary interest to present-day students. In short, we have included court opinions that are lively and likely to engender classroom discussion. Second, when editing court opinions we took care to limit the number of issues to the particular pedagogical objec­tives at hand. At the same time, we endeavored not to overly edit opin­ions, thereby robbing them of the clarity necessary for reader compre­hension. We placed these edited court opinions interspersed within the body of the text to illustrate general and specific substantive points as they arise. However, this volume is more than a casebook. The greater part of this book contains extensive expository materials that both de­scribe and explain the legal system.

With adequate study, all college students can master this text. We provide various learning aides within the text to help students toward that goal. At the beginning of each chapter, we have a box containing a statement of objectives. In most instances, we italicize key terms, names, and concepts as they are first encountered in each chapter. At the end of each chapter, we present lists of these same key terms, names, and concepts to help students focus on what they have just read and as a study tool for examinations. Mastering these terms will take students a long way down the path to successfully understanding the main outlines of our legal system. We also provide discussion questions at the end of each edited court opinion. At the end of each chapter, we append several discussion questions that students and instructors may find useful in mining chapter contents. We also include at the end of each chapter a brief list of selected readings for those students seeking additional information and analysis of chapter topics.

The book contains a glossary of selected legal and Latin words and terms to help students comprehend the subject. The Appendix contains a copy of the US. Constitution, selected sections of the Uniform Com­mercial Code, and relevant sections from the Model Penal Code.


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