Basic Knowledge of the Legal System in the United States


This country is said to have the best criminal justice system in the world. It is also the most complex. To get any basic knowledge of how our legal system works, going to the beginning is a good place to start.

Criminal law and procedure are significantly influenced by federal and state constitution. It’s easier to understand how these areas of law affect criminal law when we first explore the basic structure of American government. America is divided into two sovereign form of government — the government of the United States and governments of many states. Federalism is known as a division of power, this system of political organization has several different levels of government-city, state, and national-co-existing in the same areas with the lower levels having some independent powers, it is also commonly referred to as the vertical division of power-having the national government above state government.

The men, who wrote the Constitution of the United States, established these two levels of government in an attempt to prevent the centralization of power. No one group should have too much power at any one time. They believed that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

The national or federal government and the state governments each possess authority over citizens, as well as particular policy areas, free from interference of other governments. The writers of our Constitution intended to establish a limited national government. They wanted the governmental powers to reside in the states, with the national government being limited to the powers expressly delegated to it in the federal Constitution. This principle can be found in the Tenth Amendment which reads: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited to it by the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or the people.”

Here are just some of the powers that are delegated to the United States by the Constitution. Remember, the United States Constitution is the highest form of law in this country.

  • To coin money, punish counterfeiters, and fix standards of weights and measures.
  • To establish a post office and post roads.
  • To promote the arts.
  • To punish piracy and other crimes on the high seas.
  • To declare war and raise armies.
  • To conduct diplomacy and foreign affairs.
  • To regulate interstate and foreign commerce.
  • To make laws necessary and proper for carrying into execution other powers expressly granted in the Constitution.

The last two powers have attested to be important sources of federal powers. There is also another very important part of the Constitution that declares national law, it is the Supremacy Clause and it is a higher form of law than state law.

For example, if the national government comes in and tries to make a law to control an area that belongs to a state, that law will be no good, because the state has control over that area. But if the national government has jurisdiction (maybe they own that piece of land), and the state enacts a conflicting law, the state law is invalid. However, this rarely happens, in fact, state and national laws are more likely to compliment each other (which is called concurrent jurisdiction), than conflict each other.

As mentioned earlier, the law and legal system are very complex. The wording alone takes some of us reading over it several times before it can be fully understood. New laws are made everyday to keep up with the changing times, but we first need to know how we got to this point in order to continue and grow.

Categories Law & Legal

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