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Common law is law that evolves through judicial opinions interpreting statutes, treaties, and, in the United States, a written constitution. Civil law evolves through legislation rather than opinions of courts. The law of the original thirteen colonies was based on the English common law. This was modified by the Articles of Confederation and then the Constitution. As the United States expanded into regions originally controlled by the Spanish and French, this common law tradition was modified by the local civil law systems. This is mostobvious in Louisiana, which still retains a French- rather than an English-oriented legal system. The Spanish influence is pervasive in the legal systems of California, Texas, and several other southwestern states.

The English common law was the king's law, as distinguished from the Church's or ecclesiastical law. During the early evolution of the English legal system, the Church and the king were equally powerful. The two legal systems were separate, with the nature of the injury determining which system had jurisdiction. The U.S. Constitution ended the role of the church in the legal system. Some of the terminology and forms of the ecclesiastical courts persist, however, in the legal systems of the states that had strong state churches.

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