= = = = = from Wikipedia = = = = =
American common lawThe United States and most Commonwealth countries are heirs to the common law legal tradition of English law. Certain practices traditionally allowed under English common law were expressly outlawed by the Constitution, such as bills of attainder and general search warrants.
As common law courts, U.S. courts have inherited the principle of stare decisis. American judges, like common law judges elsewhere, not only apply the law, they also make the law, to the extent that their decisions in the cases before them become precedent for decisions in future cases.
The actual substance of English law was formally "received" into the United States in several ways. First, all U.S. states except Louisiana have enacted "reception statutes" which generally state that the common law of England (particularly judge-made law) is the law of the state to the extent that it is not repugnant to domestic law or indigenous conditions. Some reception statutes impose a specific cutoff date for reception, such as the date of a colony's founding, while others are deliberately vague. Thus, contemporary U.S. courts often cite pre-Revolution cases when discussing the evolution of an ancient judge-made common law principle into its modern form, such as the heightened duty of care traditionally imposed upon common carriers.
Second, a small number of important British statutes in effect at the time of the Revolution have been independently reenacted by U.S. states. Two examples that many lawyers will recognize are the Statute of Frauds (still widely known in the U.S. by that name) and the Statute of 13 Elizabeth (the ancestor of the Uniform Fraudulent Transfers Act). Such English statutes are still regularly cited in contemporary American cases interpreting their modern American descendants.
However, it is important to understand that despite the presence of reception statutes, much of contemporary American common law has diverged significantly from English common law. The reason is that although the courts of the various Commonwealth nations are often influenced by each other's rulings, American courts rarely follow post-Revolution Commonwealth rulings unless there is no American ruling on point, the facts and law at issue are nearly identical, and the reasoning is strongly persuasive.
Formulaion of Federal Precedent
Unlike the states, there is no plenary reception statute at the federal level that continued the common law and thereby granted federal courts the power to formulate legal precedent like their English predecessors. Federal courts are solely creatures of the federal Constitution and the federal Judiciary Acts. However, it is universally accepted that the Founding Fathers of the United States, by vesting "judicial power" into the Supreme Court and the inferior federal courts in Article Three of the United States Constitution, thereby vested in them the implied judicial power of common law courts to formulate persuasive precedent; this power was widely accepted, understood, and recognized by the Founding Fathers at the time the Constitution was ratified. Several legal scholars have argued that the federal judicial power to decide "cases or controversies" necessarily includes the power to decide the precedential effect of those cases and controversies.
The difficult question is whether federal judicial power extends to formulating binding precedent through strict adherence to the rule of stare decisis. This is where the act of deciding a case becomes a limited form of lawmaking in itself, in that an appellate court's rulings will thereby bind itself and lower courts in future cases (and therefore also impliedly binds all persons within the court's jurisdiction). Prior to a major change to federal court rules in 2007, about one-fifth of federal appellate cases were published and thereby became binding precedents, while the rest were unpublished and bound only the parties to each case.
As Judge Alex Kozinski has explained, binding precedent as we know it today simply did not exist at the time the Constitution was framed. Judicial decisions were not consistently, accurately, and faithfully reported on both sides of the Atlantic (reporters often simply rewrote or failed to publish decisions which they disliked), and the United Kingdom lacked a coherent court hierarchy prior to the end of the 19th century. Furthermore, English judges in the eighteenth century subscribed to now-obsolete natural law theories of law, by which law was believed to have an existence independent of what individual judges said. They saw themselves as merely declaring the law which had always theoretically existed, not making it. Therefore, a judge could reject another judge's opinion as simply an incorrect statement of the law, like how scientists regularly reject each other's conclusions as incorrect statements of the laws of science.
The contemporary rule of binding precedent became possible in the U.S. in the nineteenth century only after the creation of a clear court hierarchy (under the Judiciary Acts), and the beginning of regular verbatim publication of U.S. appellate decisions by West Publishing. It gradually developed case-by-case as an extension of the judiciary's public policy of effective judicial administration (that is, in order to efficiently exercise the judicial power). It is generally justified today as a matter of public policy, first, as a matter of fundamental fairness, and second, that in the absence of case law, it would be completely unworkable for every minor issue in every legal case to be briefed, argued, and decided from first principles (such as relevant statutes, constitutional provisions, and underlying public policies), which in turn would create hopeless inefficiency, instability, and unpredictability, and thereby undermine the rule of law.
Here is a typical exposition of that public policy in a 2008 majority opinion signed by Associate Justice Stephen Breyer:
However, since precedents became binding, it is now sometimes possible, over time, for a line of them to drift away from the express language of any underlying statutory or constitutional texts, until such texts are severely overloaded with implied meanings not even hinted at on their face. This tendency towards so-called judicial lawmaking has been particularly obvious in federal substantive due process decisions. Due to obvious tension with the reservation of legislative power to Congress in Article One of the United States Constitution, it is often subject to harsh criticism as "antidemocratic" from originalists such as Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, as in this 2000 dissenting opinion: