The American legal system is complicated because we demand so much of it. As lawyers, we are well aware of the criticisms that have been made about the American legal system. Critics complain that it is inefficient, too expensive, and too slow.
What the critics often fail to realize, or admit, is that the American legal system recognizes and balances many valuable rights. It would be easy and efficient to administer a legal system if we could simply ignore the pesky rights of citizens or disregard the complex interests of those who come to the courts for justice. There are a few cases that we could not decide in a minute or two if all we had to do was listen to a soundbite by a newscaster. It is easy to make a court decision seem ridiculous or unfair just by leaving out most of the details.
The cases that make their way to the courts of this state are complicated. Important and serious rights are involved, and essential public interests have to be balanced. It is the genius of the American common law system that our law is flexible to adapt to new circumstances as they arise. American law changes every day. Under the American system of justice, we start with broad principles found in our Constitution. Our legislative bodies, Congress, our state legislatures, and our city and county governments enact laws. Courts interpret those laws. At the state level, those courts consist of judges who are also elected officials.
Our legislative bodies also create administrative agencies that are empowered to issue regulations. Those regulations must also be interpreted, and it is the job of the courts to interpret those regulations to carry out the goals of the legislature and the administrative agency, as well as to protect the public interest.
American law also relies heavily on principles that we inherited from England and have adopted and adapted to our own needs. These principles are called “common law.” Although most common law principles have now been codified by legislation, those principles are still subject to interpretation and development by decisions of courts. When appellate courts make decisions that clarify or change the law, those decisions are published.
Of course, American law is complicated. American law is complicated because American society is complicated. There are numerous important public issues, and there are legitimate interests on every side of those issues, and fair consideration must be given to all of those interests.
In the 21st century, lawyers keep up with the constantly changing legal environment using computer-assisted legal research. It takes years of training and experience to get comfortable researching and applying the law to new fact situations.