A Legal History Lesson

People often ask how Louisiana’s legal system is different from the rest of the country.  Louisiana has what is called a civil law legal system, as opposed to the other 49 states, which all have common law systems.  Here is a brief overview of the difference between the two legal systems: 
The civil law tradition originates from the Roman Empire and dates back to the sixth century AD.  The Roman law established the founding legal principles throughout Continental Europe.  Louisiana created its first Civil Code, based on Spanish, French, and Roman influences.
The Common law tradition evolved in England and was adopted by America after the American Revolution. By the time Louisiana became a state in 1812, it already had a civilian system in place.
Common law traditionally requires lower courts to follow rulings issued by higher courts.  These prior decisions are called precedents.  In civil law, courts must apply written law, such as statutes, to determine the outcome of the case.  In others words, a common law judge is generally bound by a prior ruling passed down from a higher court, while a civilian law judge determines the outcome of the case by applying the facts of the case to the law as written.  In civil law, prior decisions are persuasive only.   Of course, a common law judge always has the ability to create new precedent by issuing a ruling that differs from the prior cases. 

In practice, these differences do not have a major impact on the outcome of cases.  Nevertheless, there are distinctions between civil and common law, and Louisiana’s civilian law tradition is another reminder of this state’s unique history. 

Written by Greg Gouner and Carmen Ryland
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