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​Cornerstones of the Law


​English Common Law

During medieval times, England drew legal insight from the Justinian Code (see 450-600 A.D., right). As it developed democratic institutions, its courts gained great legal influence. English jurists decided cases according to morality and custom; later, judges followed these decisions. They looked to the principle of the case and the reason of the judge. Over centuries, this developed into a body of law derived from judicial decisions. Our own legal system grew out of this body of law.


American Law

When the colonies declared independence, they kept much of the English common law, with several big differences. New laws came from Congress and state legislatures, and conformed to the U.S. and state constitutions. The written decisions of judges in various cases interpret these laws, and have grown into a rich tradition that guides America's lawyers and jurists today.


U.S. Constitution

On March 4, 1789, the Constitution of the United States took effect. The first ten amendments, comprising the Bill of Rights, quickly followed. This great document establishes the architecture of our nation's government. There have been 27 amendments to the Constitution, but none has changed the basic structure of our government. 

​Major Events in Law Up to Ratification of U.S. Constitution


1780 B.C.

The Code of Hammurabi is the earliest known documented law. Dating back to the time of Babylon, the laws of King Hammurabi are the first written laws. Inscribed in stone, the laws are great expansion upon earlier Sumerian law.

1200 B.C.

The Law of Moses or the Ten Commandments is introduced.

600-200 B.C.

Greek law, the earliest democratic legal system, is introduced. Perhaps the first legal system based on the idea that people make laws, and can change them to fit society's needs. Under this system, laws ruled society instead of people. The writings of Solon and Plato (The Laws) are a good illustration of Greek legal thought.

450-600 A.D.

Roman law was influenced by Greek legal thinking and was the early foundation of European legal systems. The first code of these Roman laws was the Law of the Twelve Tables, inscribed on brass tablets. During centuries of conquest and civil strife, Roman law became unwieldy and confusing. In the mid-sixth century, Justinian I gathered together Roman law in one organized code, the Curpus Juris Civilis (Body of Civil Law ), sometimes referred to as the Justinian Code.

1200 A.D.

The first law school was founded in Bologna, Italy. The school's courses were based on the Justinian Code, and its emphasis on Roman law influenced legal systems across Europe.