Broad Overview of the American Legal System:

A reader writes:

What one book would you recommend that gives a broad overview of the American legal system? Even if I don't go to law school, I need the background just to get a better understanding of public policy.

It's a great question, but I don't know the answer (nor do I know whether such a book exists or even can exist). If you have a recommendation, please post it in the comments, which I'm enabling for this post.

Note, though, that my correspondent and I are looking for a clear, objective description of the legal system as it is. We're not looking for condemnation or praise of the system, or descriptions of the system as it ought to be -- those can be great, but they aren't the subjects of this particular question.

How about "Restoring the Lost Constitution : The Presumption of Liberty" By Randy Barrett?
2.22.2005 5:53pm
Andrew (mail) (www):
I once read "With Justice for All?: The Nature of the American Legal System." Though the title makes it sound like the book will condemn the American legal system, it's actually just and objective textbook description (or so I recall). It's clear and easy to read... the drawback is it costs $70.
2.22.2005 5:59pm
Though it's more limited in scope than the questioner seems to want, I like Robert McCloskey's The American Supreme Court. It's a fairly short, readable history of the Court's constitutional jurisprudence. It doesn't get into things like the current administrative state, though, so it might not be great for "I want to know all about the entire legal system."
2.22.2005 6:02pm
Timothy Sandefur (mail) (www):
Over at Panda's Thumb, I tried some months ago to write a blog post that would explain the American legal system as briefly as possible. The result is here.
2.22.2005 6:38pm
Steve Carroll (mail):
I found American Law by Lawrence Friedman to be pretty valuable. It's got a small element of (center-left?) commentary, but it is primarily a book about the way things are. Anyways, I'm a least a little to the right and didn't find it annoying.
2.22.2005 6:44pm
Kieran Healy (mail) (www):
How about Fundamentals of American Law edited by Alan Morrison (Oxford, 1996)?
2.22.2005 6:50pm
Mrs Tilton (mail) (www):
Unable offhand to think of any good neutral introductory text, I'd second Timothy's post as a decent overview (though one necessarily skewed towards appellate jurisdiction). I'm quite unhappy with his description of 'legal fiction' as analogous to a scientific model (where I come from, a legal fiction is, shall we say, an irrebutable but untrue assumption; the very opposite of anything scientific), but that's a minor quibble.
2.22.2005 7:08pm
Jacob T. Levy (mail):
I think that Henry Abraham, _The Judicial Process_ is pretty much unchallenged as occupying this niche. It's stronger on judicial institutions than on the substance of legal reasoning, and it's a little dated even though there was a new edition in 1997. But I think it's still the best single book you're going to find.
2.22.2005 7:30pm
Troy Hinrichs:
I used a textbook in an undergrad Courts class called American Courts and the Criminal Justice System. It covered everything -- not just criminal courts -- from JP courts in Hooterville on up to SCOTUS. Fairly balanced coverage. Light on legal reasoning, but great on the history and structure of the federal court system as well as the roles and responsibilities of the courtroom workgroup. Also good on funding issues and sentencing policies, as they relate to jail overcrowding, bail policies, etc.

It is by David Neubauer (sic) and is published by Wadsworth -- not sure what edition it's in since I've changed jobs and haven't taught that clss in a couple of semesters. Expensive brand new, but you can usually get it at eBay or for a decent price.
2.22.2005 7:50pm
Jason Turner (mail):
I'm not sure how deeply your inquirer would like to plumb the philosophical depths, but I've found Richard Posner's Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy to be a pretty good articulation of law and policy in America, albeit a pretty heady introduction. Posner's book does not deal explicitly with policy (and not all of it is in layman's terms), but it provides a pretty broad overview and leaves the application to the reader.
2.22.2005 8:08pm
Jmoore (mail) (www):
I stongly suggest Murphy, Epstein, and Walker's Courts Judges and Politics. I used it in undergrad. Excellent.
2.22.2005 8:59pm
Josh Levine:
Especially because the reader seems to be requesting a book on the "legal system" and not substantive law, I second Professor Levy's recommendation -- Abraham's "The Judicial Process." The book does have some comparative sections, which I found quite interesting when reading it as an undergrad, but don't worry: Abraham's focus is pretty squarely on the American system. The table of contents is available on its Amazon page.
2.22.2005 11:05pm
Jonathan Maryniuk (mail) (www):
If the reader wants an overview of the origins of western law I recommend Law and Revolution by Berman.
2.23.2005 3:14am
Ed Whatley (mail):

I liked Lawrence Friedman's class at Standford and would also recommend one of his books for an overview, perhaps Law in America: A Short History.
2.23.2005 3:38am
Dennis Kim-Prieto (mail):
Toni M Fine's American legal systems: a resource and reference guide (ISBN 0870842668) is neutral and objective; it is easy to read and modestly useful as a reference guide. This item is soft on analysis and heavy on procedure. It offers a broad overview of the American legal system, but is more geared toward federal practice than state jurisprudence. Folks teaching foreign trained lawyers studying for LLMs in this country often recommend this volume.
2.23.2005 10:55am
Steve Sheppard (mail):
At the risk of self-promotion, I suggest "American Law in a Global Context: The Basics" by George Fletcher and myself, published last month on Oxford University Press. We did not think there was a thorough survey of the US legal system, and wrote this to fill the gap. We discuss its major institutions, with frequent comparisons to the major European systems, covering the required areas of law school coursework and including the famous cases used to teach those courses. There are separate chapters on civil and criminal procedure and how legal analysis works in the common and civilian systems.
Good luck,
Steve Sheppard
2.23.2005 11:05am
Bob Kelly:
"Law 101" by Rutgers Law - Camden professor Jay Feinman, is an excellent readable introduction to the American legal system. It's written for the general reader but useful as well to law students. Feinman's 2004 book, "Un-making Law," is also a good read but is a work of advocacy.
2.23.2005 3:46pm
David Muellenhoff (mail):
A slim little volume called American Courts by Daniel John Meador (West Publishing, 1991, ISBN 0-314-86717-1, cost me $8.25 in 1991 at UC Davis Law School) was pretty impressive, I thought, in describing the court system in the US and the several states about as comprehensively as possible in a concise volume (about 100 pages). I've been a lawyer for almost a decade and still have it on the shelf in my office. Great little book.
2.23.2005 5:53pm
TtP (mail):
Wanna say Nature of the Judicial Process by Cardozo, but that's a little jurisprudence-y. (Shoot, this is hard!)

Hey, if you can get through Rosenberg's The Hollow Hope you've gone a very long way toward understanding the legal system as it relates to public policy, altho' it's certainly got a perspective. But it is accessible for those of non-legal persuasions.
2.23.2005 8:31pm
Serious answer: "Miracle At Philadelphia

Non-serious answer: America: The Book
2.25.2005 10:16pm