EMPIRE OF LAWS - The Legal History of the 50 American States

Welcome to the website for American state legal history! 

Old Courthouse - Schuyler County,
New York



Courthouse - Hopkins County, Texas

Why a website for state legal history? 

State legal history is important.  In America, talk about legal affairs usually focuses on federal law, such as acts of Congress and decisions of the United States Supreme Court.  But each state has its own legal system and history.  Much of American law, particularly the parts of law that most affect daily life, comes from the states, not Washington.

State judges are important.  Many Americans can identify famous U.S. Supreme Court justices such as John Marshall and Oliver Wendell Holmes.  But hardly anyone knows about the great state supreme court judges who have helped shape  American life.  Their stories, too, deserve to be told. 

State legal history helps us appreciate American diversity.  Each region of the United States has unique legal features.  This is particularly true of the South, where faint traces of slavery’s legal legacy persist to this day, and of the Southwest states which have retained elements of French and Spanish civil law from their colonial days.  Much of the fascination and strength of our nation lies in its diversity, including its legal diversity.   

State law is becoming more important
.  From the Civil War until the late 20
th century American law became has swung the other way.  Jurists of all political stripes have looked to state legislatures and courts as a possible antidote to perceived federal excesses.  Thus it is more important than ever to understand state legal systems and how such systems evolved to their present form.

Making sense of state legal history:  how this website is organized 

State legal history is a vast subject that is difficult to organize.  Even legal professionals cannot absorb it all:   most lawyers are familiar only with their home state’s law (and perhaps a smattering of federal law and procedural rules), and many lawyers specialize in one or two narrow areas of law.  Books that attempt a comprehensive history of American law often turn into a wearying slog for the reader, consisting of brief tours into a myriad of topics.  This website is designed for both lawyers and lay persons.  If lawyers cannot manage the entire historical body of state law, how can laypersons do so?

The beauty of a website is that it allows for almost infinite segmentation of large subjects and it enables viewers to quickly access and compare the areas of most interest to them.  This website is designed to do that for viewers interested in judicial biography, in substantive legal history and in the histories of particular states or regions.  The following guideposts to the site may help the viewer:

  • The website is designed to be understandable to lawyers and laypersons alike.  We have made it as free of legal jargon as possible; where legal terms are necessary, we explain their meaning.  However, sometimes legal debates and battles turn on concepts that are esoteric and difficult for non-lawyers to understand; and sometimes, simplifying those concepts too much distorts their real meaning.  On this website, where simplicity and accuracy are in conflict, accuracy wins.
  • The website is divided into sections for each region of the United States.  Each regional section contains an overview of the region’s legal history; a synopsis of some of the most famous and important court cases emanating from each region; and short biographies of some of the great judges from each region.   A separate portion of the website contains essays and studies which view various aspects of state legal history as a whole.
  • The website concentrates on leading cases and judges of the American states.  It does not contain a detailed history of each subject area of the law.
  • The website is not intended to provide legal advice or services and should not be used for that purpose.  Readers who have legal problems should consult a lawyer and should not rely on the website.


TO LEARN MORE ABOUT STATE LEGAL HISTORY, CLICK ON THE SUBPAGE BELOW THE CHART FOR THE REGION IN WHICH YOU ARE INTERESTED:

1.       NEW ENGLAND LEGAL HISTORY

(Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut)

SEE BELOW

2.       MID-ATLANTIC LEGAL HISTORY

(New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania)

 

SEE BELOW

3.       OLD SOUTH LEGAL HISTORY

(Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina)

 

SEE BELOW

4.       MOUNTAIN SOUTH LEGAL HISTORY

(West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas)

SEE BELOW

5.       MIDWEST LEGAL HISTORY

(Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota)

SEE BELOW

6.       DEEP SOUTH LEGAL HISTORY

(South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana)

SEE BELOW

7.       SOUTHWEST LEGAL HISTORY

(Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California)

SEE BELOW

8.       GREAT PLAINS LEGAL HISTORY

(North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma)

SEE BELOW

9.       ROCKY MOUNTAIN LEGAL HISTORY

(Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Nevada)

SEE BELOW

10.   PACIFIC COAST LEGAL HISTORY

(Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Hawaii)

COMING SOON


Old Courthouse - Lincoln County, Nevada




Old Courthouse - Gallatin County, Illinois

(All courthouse pictures courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)