What is the definition of case law? How is it a part of the U.S. judicial system?

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pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the United States, there are two general types of law.  These are case law and statutory law.  Both types of law are very important in our judicial system.

One type of law is statutory law.  This kind of law comes from ordinances passed by legislature.  A legislature passes a set of laws and those laws become binding on the people for as long as they are in effect.  However, these types of laws are not always completely clear.  They also do not cover every possible circumstance.  For example, if the law says that people have to exercise reasonable care so as not to endanger others, we cannot really know what “reasonable care” is in every situation.  This is why there are so many court cases.

When a case is brought before a court, that court helps to make law.  With the example above, a court would help to define what constitutes “reasonable care.”  The court would look at a given case and determine what reasonable care meant in that context.  This sort of decision becomes a part of case law.

So, we can say that case law is law that is made through court decisions on specific cases.  Case law is important in our system because it helps to flesh out the meaning of statutory law.  It helps make it possible for us to understand what is and is not legal in a variety of situations.