As a lawyer in my 28th year of practice, together with additional years of education and training before that, I quickly accepted the task of writing a paper on “Civil Law” for our firm’s newsletter because it seemed to be quite obvious and relatively straightforward. However, in the exercise of writing this article, and in an attempt to provide both an historical context and abbreviated explanation of how our judicial system works in the context of civil litigation, I soon began to recognize how vast and complicated our legal system must seem for those whose first introduction to it is a problem trying to understand a contract written by lawyers, or struggling to resolve a legal dispute with a neighbor, local business or employer. Moreover, many people find themselves introduced to lawyers and the courts for the first time in the context of a highly emotional divorce or child custody case where the high stakes and stress of losing possession of one’s children, or dividing up and distributing years of accumulated assets only fuels the confusion and anxiety produced by a massive mix of legislative decisions (or statutes), prior court decisions and highly technical rules regarding evidence and procedure.
So, let’s take some of the mystery and fear out it by explaining a bit of how we got here and why it works the way it does. Our legal system is based upon the English Common Law that emerged in England during the Middle Ages and was applied within the British colonies across the continents, including the original 13 that later evolved into our country. Common Law is a comprehensive collection of legal rules and statutes, including the laws created by our state legislature[s] and/or Congress. For example, in a contract dispute between two parties, the Texas Legislature has determined that in certain cases, the winner of the case will be awarded a reimbursement of his/her attorney’s fees. Additionally, the Texas Legislature has written extensive laws collectively known as the Texas Family Code that outline what is and is not a marriage, sets out the eligibility of one spouse to obtain alimony, determines the guidelines for child support, sets out rules for adoption, and defines the rights and duties of parents related to children, just to name a few. Finally, another example of civil statues would be the legislature passing laws that protect consumers from businesses that conduct themselves deceptively. This is commonly known as the Deceptive Trades Practices Act. These examples are but a few of the types of laws that are called statutes, and they are enforceable on society whether we voted for the men and women who passed them into law or not.
Further, another important feature of the Common Law legal system is that it relies upon the concept of precedent, which means that decisions in one case are based upon the decisions that were historically made in similar cases in the past. These decisions are maintained over time in court records that your lawyer will often refer to “case law.” Judges are bound by these precedents. However, the precedents to be applied in the decision of each new case is determined by the presiding judge, subject only to a claim of reversible error if one side chooses to appeal the case to a higher court. An appeal is essentially asking that the decision[s] made by the presiding trial judge be reviewed and overturned. The court of appeals doesn’t hold a new trial. Rather, they read the transcript of what was said by the judge, the lawyers and the witnesses in the trial court, and review the evidence that was offered and admitted into evidence. In this way, the court of appeals determines if the trial judge followed the precedents, and if the verdict or judgment is correctly based upon the law and evidence. The court of appeals could (and often does) write an opinion about their findings. This opinion becomes precedent too if the court declares it to be important enough for it to be published and relied upon by other trial judges and lawyers in the future.
The Texas Supreme Court is the final and highest court of appeal in Texas for civil cases. Their decision process is similar to the lower courts of appeal, but is based solely upon whether the court of appeals followed… that’s right… earlier precedent when they decided to uphold or reverse the trial court. It is important to understand that the decisions made by the Texas Supreme Court are always precedent for other Texas appeals courts and trial courts to follow. Finally, the United States Supreme Court has the right, but not the obligation, to hear an appeal from someone who may be dissatisfied with a decision made by the Texas Supreme Court. Decisions by the United States Supreme Court become precedent for all courts, including the United States Supreme Court itself. And, as stated above, because our Common Law system relies upon precedent for deciding similar cases, lawyers devote many hours of time annually to continually update their knowledge of the newest decisions made by the United States Supreme Court, and here in Texas, the Texas Supreme Court, together with the various Texas courts of appeal, since all of these new decisions could potentially impact the outcome of each new lawsuit filed at the courthouse on any given day.
Nevertheless, despite the complex system of precedents, rules and courts, the most important component in our legal system remains the client and his/her dispute. The problems facing our clients are quite real, and often have lifelong consequences depending upon the outcome. Whether it’s a problem concerning real state, a contract or business dispute, or even one of the many aspects of divorce and child custody, the legal troubles facing our clients are why most lawyers work as hard as we do to build trust and always be prepared for court. Our Common Law system is designed to allow the attorneys for both sides to present their evidence and argument to an impartial judge, using the precedents and rules as the standards in order to guarantee that fairness will be achieved. Even though the system may appear complicated, its core value is premised upon the idea that truth and justice will prevail. It’s worked for hundreds of years. It will work for you too. At the law offices of Bailey & Galyen, we have the knowledge, skill, experience and resources to help you successfully navigate the legal system and resolve your legal dispute.