A Legal Primer, for Those Annoying RC Passages About the Law

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One of the best things about the LSAT is that you don’t really have to remember any substantive information. Sure, you have to learn some techniques to answer questions, but you don’t have to know any legal facts (and believe me, once you take the bar exam, you’ll truly appreciate how wonderful that difference is).

And yet, many recent LSATs have had Reading Comprehension passages on the law and legal processes. Students in June 2017, June 2016, and June 2012, for example, had passages on the adversary system and independent judicial research, jury nullification, and fingerprint evidence, respectively. The most recent exam had an apparently nasty passage about the sincerity of judge’s beliefs.

Now, obviously, Reading Comprehension isn’t actually testing any substantive knowledge, but it can’t hurt to have a cursory understanding of some basic legal topics to get through these passages more easily. This post is going to cover some basics of the law, brought to you by a product of one of the most expensive law schools in the nation.

At the most basic, there are two types of cases you’ll see in the courts–civil and criminal. Civil cases generally involve torts (a non-contract action) and contract disputes. They are generally between private parties, and largely involve either some personal injury or economic dispute. Criminal cases, obviously, involve a violation of criminal law, and they are brought by the government.

Beyond the subject matter, another key difference between civil and criminal cases is the burden of proof (i.e., the standard by which the parties must prove their case). In civil cases, the standard is generally a preponderance of the evidence, which is a fancy way of saying “more likely than not,” whereas criminal cases usually must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. The rationale is that we don’t want to convict someone of a crime (which attaches a larger degree of stigma and usually involves a deprivation of liberty) unless we’re relatively certain a crime was committed.

Once a case is brought, our legal system operates through the adversarial process–there are two sides squaring off and trying to prove their competing cases to the jury or the judge. The judge is generally an impartial referee between the two sides. This is in contrast to an inquisitorial system, where the judge takes a much more active role in investigating the evidence to reach his or her own answer to a problem. There are a lot of academic articles written exploring this topic, but the basic dispute is whether the adversarial system obfuscates the truth more than the inquisitorial system or whether it leads to more impartiality because the judge is disinterested and uninvolved.

Once you have a civil or criminal case brought in our adversarial system, the first step is the trial court. Once you go through discovery (the exchange of information, either upon request or compelled), you will present your case to a jury or a judge, and they will render a decision. If you’re using a jury (a Constitutional right in the good ol’ US of A), the jury members are the “fact finders”–they make decisions about what actually happened in the case (like who is guilty or at fault). The judges make legal decisions in the case (like what evidence gets submitted). If you just have a judge, the “court” (i.e., the judge) does both.

From the trial court, you can appeal an unfavorable decision to the appellate court (and then on to the Supreme Court). In sum, trial courts render a decision, which can be appealed to an appellate to determine whether any significant error took place at the lower court.

The above process applies in both state and federal level courts. Federal courts generally hear cases that arise under a federal cause of action (i.e. if Congress passes a federal statute that lets you bring a lawsuit) or cases between parties from different states that involve a lot of money (over $75,000). State courts, on the other hand, have the ability to hear virtually any legal dispute.

In either system, judges will render decisions based on either precedent (sometimes referred to as “stare decisis”) or based on the language of the statute. Precedent basically means that, for the sake of consistency, courts will adhere to prior court decisions on an issue, unless those decisions are based on an error in law. However, precedent gives way to statutes. So even if the courts have decided a certain way before, a Congressional statute on point will override that precedent (because the judiciary interprets the law, it doesn’t decide it).

If you’re bored, I have bad news about your first year in law school (but maybe good news about whether you should take the LSAT). Don’t spend too much time worrying about getting a primer on the legal system–you really can succeed on the LSAT even if you don’t know anything substantive. But hopefully this gave you some insight into the basics of the American system of law that will help you on the inevitable legal passage on your exam.

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