Civil law Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Body of law that deals primarily with relationships between individuals; it is distinct from criminal law, which deals with offenses against the state.

The term “civil law” originally referred to the system of Roman jurisprudence and was used to distinguish it from natural and international law. In the United States, the term distinguishes between the legal relationships of individuals normally property relationships and crimes, which are established by either federal or state penal statutes. Civil law covers nearly every important human relationship: property ownership, torts, land titles, making and enforcing contracts, buying and selling, employment of labor, business regulation, environmental and workplace safety, marriage and divorce, responsibility for children, and inheritance.Criminal lawCriminal law

The common-law tradition, which was brought to North America by English settlers, established a complex system of judge-made rules to regulate individual relationships. So complicated had the rules of practice as well as the substance of the law become that a movement to simplify and “codify” the law sprang up in the middle of the nineteenth century. David D. Field, brother to Supreme Court Justice Stephen J. Field, drafted such a code and campaigned vigorously for its adoption in New York state. In 1846 the Field Code was enacted by the New York legislature. It became the prototype for civil codes in all states within the United States except Louisiana. It is also the historical root of the modern Uniform Commercial Code and the rules of civil procedure that exist all over the country.

The Supreme Court’s involvement with civil law is primarily in two areas: procedures and content or substance. In 1934 Congress passed the Rules Enabling Act, which authorized the Court to establish rules for lower federal courts. In 1938 the Court promulgated the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for the first time. These were widely acclaimed for their simplicity and clarity. Most states have adopted some or all of these rules.

Regarding the content or substance of civil law, there are two major issues: the federal government’s diversity jurisdictionDiversity jurisdiction and the content of civil laws. The diversity referred to is diversity of state citizenship. When litigants are from different states, they have the choice of having their case heard in state or federal courts. However, most commercial and property rules in the United States are state law rather than federal law, so the question arises of what law should be applied. In Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins[case]Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins[Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins] (1938), the Court held that unless federal law or the constitution directly applies to a case, the federal courts must apply state case law, usually that of the state of the defendant in the suit. These issues may be particularly complex when there are multiple plaintiffs and defendants, for example in a case that might involve airline negligence. Because of the proliferation of diversity cases, Congress in 1958 established ten thousand dollars as the minimum amount being litigated before a federal court may take jurisdiction. The amount was raised to eighty thousand dollars in 1988. Even with that increase, the principal effect of diversity jurisdiction is to allow large corporations that are sued in state courts to get their cases into federal courts. Such cases now make up one-quarter of the workload of the federal courts.

The Court’s role in the content of civil law results from the increased regulatory activity of the federal government. After 1933, primarily using the power to regulate interstate commerce, Congress immensely expanded the scope of federal law. National laws touch on business issues, the environment, product safety, medicine, civil rights, taxation, and workplace safety. These all raise civil law issues. When questions arise, whether of constitutional or statutory interpretation, the Court is the final arbiter. Most of the Court’s workload is made up of civil rather than criminal or constitutional cases.

Further Reading
  • Abadinsky, Howard. Law and Justice: An Introduction to the American Legal System. 5th ed. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 2003.
  • Carter, Lief, Austin Sarat, Mark Silverstein, and William Weaver. New Perspectives on American Law: An Introduction to Private Law in Politics and Society. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1997.
  • Field, David Dudley. “The Index of Civilization.” In The Golden Age of American Law, edited by Charles Haar. New York: George Braziller, 1965.
  • Friedman, Lawrence M. A History of American Law. 3d ed. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.
  • Hall, Timothy L., ed. The U.S. Legal System. 2 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
  • Holmes, Oliver Wendell, Jr. The Common Law. Boston: Little, Brown, 1964.
  • Johns, Margaret, and Rex R. Perschbacher. The United States Legal System: An Introduction. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 2002.
  • Llewellyn, Karl. The Common Law Tradition. Boston: Little, Brown, 1960.
  • Pound, Roscoe. Jurisprudence. St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing, 1959.
  • Scheb, John M., and John M. Scheb II. Introduction to the American Legal System. Albany, N.Y.: Delmar Learning, 2001.
  • Schubert, Frank A. Introduction to Law and the Legal System. 8th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004. General college textbook with cases and explanations of evidentiary issues.

Commerce, regulation of

Common law

Common law, federal

Diversity jurisdiction

Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins


Natural law

Police powers

Roman law

State courts

Categories: History