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The U.S. Legal System

In the United States, laws are made at the federal and state levels. Laws adopted by legislative bodies - Congress and state legislatures - are called "statutes."

The federal and state courts enforce statutes. They also create law.

These materials describe some of the basic concepts of our legal system, and the roles played by legislatures and courts.


The U.S. Constitution gives Congress to power to enact federal laws ("statutes") on certain subjects.

The Copyright Act (discussed extensively in the Copyright Law Summary ) is one example of a statute adopted by Congress. Congress's power to enact the Copyright Act stems from Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution, which authorizes Congress to establish laws giving "authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries" to encourage progress in the arts and sciences.

According to the Constitution, all powers not delegated to Congress are reserved to the states. The "commerce clause" of the Constitution (which concerns interstate commerce) is generally viewed as giving Congress broad power to regulate matters affecting interstate commerce - trademarks used in interstate commerce, for example.

Federal law-making begins when a member of the Senate or the House of Representatives introduces a bill. Most bills are referred to standing committees (for example, the House Committee on the Judiciary) and to subcommittees for study. Bills are later brought before the Senate or House for debate and vote. Differences between the Senate and House versions of a bill are resolved in joint conference committees.

After the House and Senate have approved a uniform version of the bill, the bill is sent to the President. If the President signs the bill, it becomes law. If the President vetoes the bill, it becomes law only if the Senate and House override the veto. This requires the consent of two-thirds of the members of the Senate and House.


State legislatures can pass laws on matters for which they share jurisdiction with Congress. Trademark law is an example of a shared jurisdiction. In other matters, the federal government has taken exclusive jurisdiction. Copyright is an example: The Copyright Act prohibits the states from granting copyright-like protection.

States can also pass laws on matters in which the Constitution does not grant jurisdiction to the federal government.

State law-making occurs through a process that is similar to the federal process.


The courts enforce statutes and interpret them. They also invalidate unconstitutional statutes, and make law in areas not covered by statutes. Here are some examples of the four main roles played by our courts:
  • Enforcement The Copyright Act gives a copyright owner the exclusive right to reproduce the owner's work. A copyright infringement suit is an example of court enforcement of a statute. (Copyright infringement is discussed in "Infringement," in the Copyright Law Summary )

  • Interpretation .According to the Copyright Act, the copyright in a work created by an employee within the scope of his or her employment is owned by the employer. The Copyright Act does not define the term "employee." The Supreme Court case that defines the term is an example of court interpretation of a statute. (That case is discussed in the "The Work Made for Hire Rule" in the Ownership of Copyrights Summary )

  • Invalidation . The courts invalidate unconstitutional laws. Unconstitutional laws are laws that conflict with provisions of the Constitution. The Constitution is the supreme law of the United States. Many "constitutionality" cases involve claims that a law violates the Constitution's Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments). In Roe v. Wade , the Supreme Court invalidated a state statute restricting women's access to abortion. According to the Court, the statute violated a pregnant woman's constitutional right of privacy.

  • Making Law . The courts create the law for "common law" subject areas. Common law covers areas not covered by statutes. In many states, for example, individuals' rights of privacy and publicity are protected under common law rather than under statutory laws.

Types of Courts

There are several types of courts. The federal and state court systems consist of two levels of courts: Trial courts and appellate courts. Cases are tried in trial courts. Appellate courts review the decisions of the trial courts. (Appellate and trial courts are discussed in "Civil Lawsuits," later in this summary.)

The federal court system is divided into 13 judicial circuits. Eleven of the circuits are numbered. Each of the numbered circuits contains more than one state. The Ninth Circuit, for example, covers California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, Alaska, and Hawaii. The 12th and 13th circuits are the District of Columbia Circuit and the Federal Circuit. The Federal Circuit handles appeals in patent cases and Claims Court cases.

Each federal circuit has one appellate court. These courts are known as Courts of Appeals or Circuit Courts. The Supreme Court reviews the decisions of the Courts of Appeals.

Each federal circuit is divided into judicial districts. A district can be as small as one city or as large as an entire state. The trial courts are known as the United States District Courts.


The federal courts have jurisdiction over cases involving federal statutes (the Copyright Act, for example) and other "federal questions." They also have jurisdiction over cases in which the party filing the suit and the party being sued reside in different states. This type of federal jurisdiction is known as "diversity" jurisdiction.

Other types of cases must be brought in state court.

Civil and Criminal Cases

A criminal case is brought by the federal government or a state to prosecute a defendant (the party sued) for violations of the government's criminal laws. Murder and burglary are examples of violations of criminal laws. If the defendant in a criminal case is found guilty by the jury, he or she is sentenced by the court to serve a jail sentence or pay a fine as punishment for the crime.

A civil case is a case brought by one party (the "plaintiff") against another party (the "defendant") to resolve a legal dispute involving rights based on statutory law or common law. A copyright infringement case is an example of a civil case involving statutory law. A suit seeking damages for a writer's breach of a contract (in which the writer promised to create a script for a movie but failed to do so) is an example of a civil case involving common law rights. (Breach of contract is discussed in "What Is a Contract?," the Contracts Law Summary )

While certain violations of the Copyright Act and the Lanham Act (the federal trademark statute) are criminal violations, multimedia developers and publishers will be concerned primarily with civil cases.

Civil Lawsuits

There are several stages in civil lawsuits, from initiation to trial and then on to stages of appeal. We'll discuss these stages in this section.


A civil lawsuit is initiated when the plaintiff files a "complaint" against the defendant alleging that the defendant has wronged the plaintiff in some way recognized by the law. In most civil lawsuits, the plaintiff asks the court to award the plaintiff "damages" (a remedy for the defendant's wrongdoing - usually money) or to order the defendant to do something.

The defendant responds to the allegations in the complaint by filing an "answer" (a document in which the defendant admits or denies the complaint's allegations and states defenses). The defendant can also file a "counterclaim" against the plaintiff (allegations that the plaintiff has wronged the defendant).


If the parties do not "settle" the case (reach their own agreement on how to resolve the dispute), the case eventually goes to trial. In most types of civil cases, the Constitution gives the parties a right to a jury trial. The role of the jury is to decide questions of fact. However, in some complex cases, the parties choose to dispense with the jury and have the case decided by the judge.


If the losing party in a civil lawsuit is not satisfied with the decision of the trial court, the losing party can appeal the case to the appropriate appellate court.

In the federal court system, the appeal generally must be filed with the Court of Appeals for the judicial circuit in which the trial was held. A case tried in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, for example, must be appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

An appellate court's job in reviewing a trial court's decision is to look for "mistakes of law" made by the trial court. Appellate courts do not "second guess" factual issues decided by trial courts. In our legal system, factual issues are supposed to be resolved by the jury, not by the appellate court. So long as there is adequate factual evidence to support the verdict, an appellate court will not reverse a trial court's decision or "remand" the case (send it back to the trial court for retrial) unless they find that the trial court made a "mistake of law."

Filing an appeal is probably a waste of money unless a losing party can reasonably hope to convince the appellate judges that there is insufficient evidence to support the trial court's decision, or that the trial court misapplied the law.

Example: Plaintiff's lawsuit alleges that Defendant infringed the copyright on Plaintiff's song by copying the melody of the song. The jury found that Defendant did not infringe Plaintiff's copyright. If the jury reached its decision after being told by the judge that a song's melody is not protected by copyright (a mistake in the applicable law, copyright law), Plaintiff has a good basis for appeal. However, if the jury reached its decision after listening to Defendant's song and concluding that the melody of Defendant's song is not similar to the melody of Plaintiff's song, Plaintiff does not have a strong basis for appeal. (Whether or not the songs have similar melodies is a factual determination.)

Appellate courts generally issue written opinions explaining how they reached their conclusions on whether to affirm (uphold), reverse, or remand a case. These opinions are important parts of the development of the law because our legal system is based on "precedent" (reliance on previously decided cases). (The role of precedent is discussed in "Precedent," later in this summary.)

Supreme Court Review

There are two ways to get a case reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court: by appeal and by certiorari . The losers in certain types of cases - for example, cases involving claims that state statutes are unconstitutional - have a right to appeal to the Supreme Court.

For most cases, though, there is no right of appeal to the Supreme Court. However, a party who has lost a case at the federal Court of Appeals level can file a petition for certiorari with the Supreme Court. A petition for certiorari is a document explaining why the Supreme Court should review a case. If the Supreme Court grants certiorari , the appeal proceeds. If the Court denies it, the Court of Appeals' decision stands.

Thousands of petitions for certiorari are filed each year and most are denied. The Supreme Court is likely to grant certiorari on a case only if the case involves a matter of national interest or the Court believes that it must decide the case to resolve conflicts among the Circuit Courts and create uniformity in federal law.


An appellate court's decision on an issue is binding on lower courts in the appellate court's jurisdiction. Thus, an appellate court's decisions are "precedent" that the lower courts in the appellate court's jurisdiction must follow (apply).

Example: In Effects Associates, Inc. v. Cohen , the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the grant of a nonexclusive copyright license can be implied from the copyright owner's conduct. This decision is binding on the federal district courts located in the Ninth Circuit. Those courts are not free to decide that a nonexclusive copyright license cannot be implied from conduct.

A lower court's decision is not binding on a higher court. In fact, appellate courts frequently reverse decisions made by trial courts to correct the trial courts' "mistakes of law."

Because the United States Supreme Court is the "highest court in the land," the Supreme Court's decisions are binding on all courts in the United States.

Example: In Community for Creative Nonviolence v. Reid , the Supreme Court decided how to apply the Copyright Act's "work made for hire" rule to works created by independent contractors. That decision is binding on all courts in the United States. (Work made for hire is discussed in "The Work Made for Hire Rule" in the Ownership of Copyrights Summary )

A court's decision may "be persuasive" outside its region. For a decision to "be persuasive" means that other courts, while not compelled to follow it, choose to follow it. For example, if the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has never decided whether a nonexclusive copyright license can be implied from the copyright owner's conduct but the Ninth Circuit has, the Eleventh Circuit may reach the same conclusion as the Ninth Circuit when it decides that issue because it believes that the Ninth Circuit's decision was correct.

Earlier court decisions are generally "followed" by the deciding court in all later cases involving the same issue.

For example, if the Ninth Circuit decides a case that involves the same legal issues that were involved in a previous case, it is likely to decide those issues as it did in the previous case.

The reliance that our courts put on previously decided cases in deciding new cases is known as stare decisis . That is Latin for "let the decision stand." The doctrine of stare decisis does not prevent a court from "overruling" its own previously decided cases. However, stare decisis discourages rapid and radical changes in the law. As Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas once wrote in the Columbia Law Review , "stare decisis provides some moorings so that men may trade and arrange their affairs with confidence....It is the strong tie which the future has to the past."

The doctrine of stare decisis is the reason that an attorney performs legal research hoping to find cases supporting the attorney's position on a legal issue.


Because law is made by the courts on a precedent basis following the doctrine of stare decisis , and also made by Congress and the state legislatures, knowing the law on a given topic generally requires a review of both statutory law and case law.


Federal and state statutory laws can be found by consulting published "codifications" of laws in law libraries maintained by law schools, law firms, courts, and bar associations. To find a federal law such as the Copyright Act, for example, you would look in the United States Code, which is divided into "titles." Federal and state statutory laws can also be obtained "on-line" from Westlaw or Lexis, two computerized legal research services.

Recently adopted laws may not be included in the published codifications of statutes. While the publishers of these codifications add new material regularly (in "pocket parts" inserted at the back of appropriate volumes), even the pocket parts may not include laws adopted in the most recent session of the legislature.

Court Decisions

Court decisions (also known as "case law") can be found in publications called "reporters." For example, decisions of the United States Supreme Court are published in the United States Reports , the Supreme Court Reporter , and the Lawyers Edition (three different "reporters" from three different publishers).

These decisions are also available from computerized services such as Westlaw and Lexis, which provide on-line research assistance for locating cases on desired topics. "Digests" that divide decide cases into topics are also helpful for locating relevant cases. Other research resources help lawyers determine whether cases in which they are interested have been reversed by a higher court or overruled (modified by a later decision of the same court).

Various publishing companies publish "annotated" statutory codes, which bring statutes and relevant court decisions together in one source. West Publishing Company, for example, publishes the United States Code Annotated , which lists the court decisions enforcing or interpreting each provision of the United States Code.


The parties to a dispute sometimes choose to resolve a dispute through arbitration rather than through court litigation. In arbitration, a dispute is resolved by a neutral arbitrator rather than by a judge or jury.

Arbitration is generally quicker and cheaper than court litigation. Specially qualified arbitrators are often used to resolve technical disputes.

Both parties must agree to submit their dispute to arbitration. Many contracts require that disputes be resolved through arbitration rather than through litigation.

In the United States, many arbitration cases are handled by arbitrators approved by the American Arbitration Association, which has offices in a number of cities. Arbitration is similar to a trial in that both parties present their cases to the arbitrator, who renders a decision. Appeals of arbitrators' decisions are generally possible only if the arbitration was conducted improperly.


Government offices and agencies play an important role in our legal system. The Copyright Office and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office are the key federal government offices for multimedia developers and publishers. (The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is discussed in "Patent Law" and "Trademark Law" in the Patent, Trademark, and Trade Secret Law Summary .)

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