Law 101 — How the Legal System Works

The U.S. Constitution establishes a legal system that is based on federal law and a federal system of government, an overarching system that covers the entire country. Any power not delegated specifically to the federal government belongs to the states. Each state maintains its own constitution, statutes and policies and also maintains 3 distinct branches of government — the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. This separation of powers ensures that adequate checks and balances are in place so that one branch does not gain more power than the other two. To understand how the CHD legal team navigates the legal system, it is important to know how the U.S. government is structured, how the court systems work, as well as the foundations of litigation. Law 101 provides a brief description of legal terms and basic civil procedure so that you can be informed and understand the law.

Children’s Health Defense (CHD) accomplishes much of its advocacy through the legal system. This section is a primer on U.S. civics and legal process. It discusses natural rights, the various governmental authorities, the limits on their powers and the types of law promulgated by each. It also discusses the basic process involved in a lawsuit, some key types of legal documents and the elements of legal analysis, argument and reasoning.

Why is it worth developing a basic understanding of the legal system? Here are some thoughts about that question. While we are all interconnected and interdependent, a certain amount of self-sufficiency is essential to a good life, and to the extent we are able, we should avoid outsourcing core aspects of our life to experts. This is as true of our legal rights as it is of our health. Just as we are likely to be healthier and happier if we don’t allow our physical well-being to depend wholly on the expertise of health professionals, we’re likely to be freer and happier if we don’t allow our legal well-being to depend wholly on the expertise of legal professionals. We need to know what our rights are so we can recognize when they’re being trampled; we need to understand the limits of governmental power so we can push back when governments exceed those limits.

Natural Law

The Declaration of Independence recognizes the natural rights of human beings and acknowledges that these rights pre-exist any governments or laws. While many argue that the Declaration is not legally binding, its beautiful language is nonetheless at the heart of much meaningful legal advocacy: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just power from the consent of the governed …”

The Declaration’s recognition of natural rights is echoed in the Ninth and Tenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which provide, respectively, “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people,” and “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

Key founding documents and concepts: federalism, separation of powers, checks and balances

Key Founding Documents


The political system in the United States is one of dual sovereignty. “Federalism” refers to the Constitution’s division of political power and sovereignty between the national and state governments. Under the Constitution, the national (i.e. federal) government is a government of limited power; for example, the powers of Congress are enumerated in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution. The Supremacy Clause of the constitution states that in areas where the federal government has authority, the federal government reigns supreme–that is, its laws take precedence over any state laws. However, the Tenth and Eleventh Amendments of the Constitution protect state sovereignty and make it clear that the states and “We the People” have power over areas not expressly delegated to the federal government. Questions about the appropriate balance of power between the federal and state governments often lurk in the background of litigation.

Separation of Powers

“Separation of powers” refers to the Constitution’s division of political power among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government. The legislative branch makes law; the executive branch executes the law, and the judicial branch interprets and applies the law. This means that the executive branch–including executive agencies–is not supposed to create new laws; instead, it is limited to implementing laws duly enacted by Congress. Of course, the line between legislating and executing law is not always clear, and many legal battles concern the question of whether an executive agency like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has stepped over this line. See, for example, the mask mandate case in Florida HFDF v. Biden.

Checks and Balances

Together, federalism and the separation of powers create a system of checks and balances, helping to ensure that no one branch of government, and no one locus of government, becomes all-powerful, resulting in tyranny.

The Federal Government and Its Three Branches

The U.S. Constitution sets forth the three branches of the Federal Government: legislative, executive and judicial. Each branch has its own type of power and is the source of a different kind of law. The legislative branch and its powers are set forth in Article I of the Constitution, the executive branch and its powers in Article II and the judicial branch and its powers in Article III. Additional limits on the powers of governments (Federal and State) are set forth in the Bill of Rights.

Broadly speaking, the legislative branch (Congress) passes statutes according to the powers enumerated in Article I, Section 8 and expanded in the Fourteenth Amendment. The executive branch (including executive agencies and the chief executive, i.e., the President) commands the military, executes laws passed by Congress and issues executive orders and regulations. The judicial branch (including the U.S. Supreme Court, federal circuit courts of appeal and U.S. district courts) decides individual cases and issues judicial opinions. When mounting legal challenges, CHD draws on laws made by all three branches of government, as well as the U.S. Constitution and natural law.

Legislative Branch: Congress

Under Article I of the Constitution, Congress enacts legislation in the areas enumerated under Article I, Section 8 and Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, as interpreted by the federal courts:

The Legislative Branch | The White House

  • House Representatives (435 members)
  • Senate (100 members)

Executive Branch: The President and Executive Agencies

The Executive Branch | The White House (President, Vice President, Cabinet The Cabinet | The White House and most federal agencies Government Agencies and Elected Officials | USAGov ) — Comprised of executive orders, treaties (w/Senate), nominations/appointments (w/Senate).

Administrative agencies: regulations, limitations

Judicial Branch: the Federal Courts

The Judicial Branch interprets and evaluates laws and resolves disputes involving federal law.

  • Hierarchy of Federal Courts

Court Role and Structure

  • Federal court jurisdiction. Federal Courts & the Public | United States Courts
  • “Judicial review” refers to the power of federal courts to review the constitutionality of laws and actions taken by the legislative and executive branches, and — potentially — to declare those laws or actions invalid if they conflict with the U.S. Constitution or federal law.
  • “Stare decisis” is Latin for “to stand by things decided.” This principle, otherwise known as precedent, means that when deciding a legal issue, a court will decide in a way that aligns with other courts’ decisions about similar issues, especially when those other courts are “higher” and in the same jurisdiction as the deciding court. Stare decisis helps to ensure consistency and stability in the legal system.

State and Local Governments

How State Sovereignty is protected in the Bill of Rights and limited in the Supremacy Clause:

  • The Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” This means, among other things, that states retain a general police power, that is, the power to regulate behavior in furtherance of the general welfare, including public health.
  • The Eleventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides “The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State.” This means that states have “sovereign immunity,” and that unless the state or the federal government creates an exception, the state is immune from being sued without consent by any citizen in federal courts or before federal administrative agencies, or in state courts on claims arising from federal law.
  • The so-called “Supremacy Clause,” Article VI, Clause 2 of the U.S. Constitution provides: “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.” This means that when a legitimate state law conflicts with a legitimate federal law or treaty, the federal law or treaty takes precedence.

The State Government and its Three Branches

Like the U.S. Constitution, each state’s constitution sets forth the branches and powers of the state’s government, along with limitations on those powers, State and Local Government | The White House — plenary power, structured and limited by State Constitution; also limited by the Federal Constitution, especially Supremacy Clause.

  • Legislative branch
  • Executive branch: Governor, agencies
  • State agencies: regulations, state APAs
  • Medical and pharmacy boards
  • Judicial branch
  • Hierarchy of state courts
  • Relationship with federal courts
  • Judicial opinions and start decisions

Local Government: County, Municipal, Town, Boards: Zoning, School

Municipalities generally take responsibility for parks and recreation services, police and fire departments, housing services, emergency medical services, municipal courts, transportation services (including public transportation), and public works (streets, sewers, snow removal, signage, and so forth).

International Norms and Treaties

  • Nuremberg Code establishes that voluntary informed consent of each individual is absolutely essential during human experiments.
  • Declaration of Helsinki — is a statement of ethical principles for physicians to follow when conducting medical research on human subjects.
  • The National Research Act — in 1974, the Act was created to ensure that institutional boards for public health would develop guidelines for human subject research and would oversee and regulate the use of human experimentation in medicine.
  • Belmont Report — is the birth of bioethics in the U.S. because it provided the basic ethical principles that would guide the conduct of all biomedical and behavioral research involving humans.
  • Geneva Convention — is a series of international treaties that outline the humanitarian rules of war, particularly on the treatment of civilians, prisoners of war (POWs) and soldiers who are rendered incapable of fighting.
  • Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court — is a multilateral treaty that established the international criminal court (ICC) with the intent and purpose to prosecute four core international crimes for which there is no statute of limitations: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression.

Basic Civil Procedure

Thanks to Court TV and other trial news coverage, the public is familiar with the basic concepts of criminal procedure. Although filing a civil lawsuit may be less dramatic, it is as important because it allows private parties to resolve their disputes before a judge in a court of law. However, before a person can file a complaint against another in court, the formal initiation of civil litigation, one must understand that there are certain rules known as “civil procedure” that must be followed. The goal of civil procedure is to set the stage for litigation and to ensure that parties involved in civil litigation are able to resolve their dispute through a fair and just process.

Who Are the Key Players in a Legal Proceeding?

The 2 key parties to a lawsuit are the Plaintiff, the one who initiates litigation or brings the case to court, and the Defendant, the party defending against the lawsuit.

What is a Cause of Action?

A cause of action is a set of facts or allegations that a plaintiff is required to prove in order to obtain a legal or equitable remedy and win the lawsuit. A cause of action can arise from a statute, a contract, a fundamental right or an administrative regulation. Examples include breaches of contract, fraud, statutory actions of action, tort actions (assault, battery, negligence, invasion of privacy, intentional or neglectful infliction of emotional distress), defamation and suits in equity (unjust enrichment and quantum meruit). A cause of action usually consists of two parts: (1) the legal theory (the legal wrong that the plaintiff alleges to have suffered) and (2) the remedy or relief that the plaintiff seeks from the court. Without a valid cause of action, there is no right to file suit against another.

What’s a Jury?

The group of persons selected to hear the evidence in a trial and render a verdict on matters of fact.

How Courts work

Self-help Guide to Federal Court Complaints

Key Types of Legal Definitions

Relevant terms for civil litigation:

  • Amicus Curiae Briefs — Latin for “friend of the court.” It is advice formally offered to the court in a brief filed by an entity interested in, but not a party to, the case.
  • Answer — The formal written statement by a defendant in a civil case that responds to a complaint, articulating the grounds for defense.
  • Appeal Process — A request made after a trial by a party that has lost on one or more issues. A higher court then reviews the decision to determine if it was correct. To make such a request is to “appeal” or to “take an appeal.” One who appeals is called the “appellant,” the responding party is the “appellee.”
  • Burden of Proof — The duty to prove disputed facts. In civil cases, a plaintiff generally has the burden of proving his or her case. In criminal cases, the government has the burden of proving the defendant’s guilt.
  • Class Action — A lawsuit in which one or more members of a large group, or class, of individuals or other entities sue on behalf of the entire class. The trial court must find that the claims of the class members contain questions of law or fact in common before the lawsuit can proceed as a class action.
  • Complaints — A written statement that begins a civil lawsuit, in which the plaintiff details the claims against the defendant.
  • Damages — Money that a defendant pays a plaintiff in a civil case if the plaintiff has won. Damages may be compensatory (for loss or injury) or punitive (to punish and deter future misconduct).
  • Declaratory Judgment — A judge’s statement about someone’s rights. For example, a plaintiff may seek a declaratory judgment that a particular statute, as written, violates some constitutional right.
  • Default Judgment — A judgment awarding a plaintiff the relief sought in the complaint because the defendant has failed to appear in court or otherwise respond to the complaint.
  • Discovery — Procedures used to obtain disclosure of evidence before trial.
  • Evidence — Information presented in testimony or in documents that is used to persuade the fact finder (judge or jury) to decide the case in favor of one side or the other.
  • Hearsay — Evidence presented by a witness who did not see or hear the incident in question but heard about it from someone else. With some exceptions, hearsay generally is not admissible as evidence at trial.
  • Injunction — A court order preventing one or more named parties from taking some action. A preliminary injunction often is issued to allow fact-finding, so a judge can determine whether a permanent injunction is justified.
  • Issue — 1. The disputed point between parties in a lawsuit. 2. To send out officially, as in a court issuing an order.
  • Judgment — The official decision of a court finally resolving the dispute between the parties to the lawsuit.
  • Jurisdiction — The legal authority of a court to hear and decide a certain type of case. It also is used as a synonym for venue, meaning the geographic area over which the court has territorial jurisdiction to decide cases.
  • Lawsuit — A legal action started by a plaintiff against a defendant based on a complaint that the defendant failed to perform a legal duty that resulted in harm to the plaintiff.
  • Motions — A request by a litigant to a judge for a decision on an issue relating to the case.
  • Pleadings — Written statements filed with the court that describe a party’s legal or factual assertions about the case.
  • Pro Se — Representing oneself. Serving as one’s own lawyer.
  • Procedure — The rules for conducting a lawsuit; there are rules of civil procedure, criminal procedure, evidence, bankruptcy and appellate procedure.
  • Settlement — Parties to a lawsuit resolve their dispute without having a trial. Settlements often involve the payment of compensation by one party in at least partial satisfaction of the other party’s claims, but usually do not include the admission of fault.
  • Standard of Proof — Degree of proof required. In criminal cases, prosecutors must prove a defendant’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The majority of civil lawsuits require proof “by a preponderance of the evidence” (50% plus), but in some, the standard is higher and requires “clear and convincing” proof.
  • Statute of Limitations — The time within which a lawsuit must be filed or a criminal prosecution begins. The deadline can vary, depending on the type of civil case or the crime charged.
  • Temporary Restraining Order — Akin to a preliminary injunction, it is a judge’s short-term order forbidding certain actions until a full hearing can be conducted. Often referred to as a TRO.
  • Testimony — Evidence presented orally by witnesses during trials or before grand juries.
  • Venue — The geographic area in which a court has jurisdiction. A change of venue is a change or transfer of a case from one judicial district to another.
  • Verdict — The decision of a trial jury or a judge that determines the guilt or innocence of a criminal defendant, or that determines the final outcome of a civil case.
  • Witness — A person called upon by either side in a lawsuit to give testimony before the court or jury.
  • Writ — A written court order directing a person to take, or refrain from taking, a certain act.

Foundation of Legal Argument/Analysis

All legal analyses and arguments boil down to the “IRAC” paradigm that lawyers learn in their first year of law school. “IRAC” stands for Issue, Rule, Analysis/Argument, Conclusion. In any legal dispute (issue) a body of law (rule) is applied to a given set of circumstances (analysis/argument) to reach a conclusion about whether or not the law has been violated. The body of law may be simple and derive from a single source of law, e.g., a posted state speed limit applied in a speeding case. It may be complex and derive from multiple sources, e.g., the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act and associated regulations applied in a vaccine injury case. Or it may be somewhere in between. A significant part of CHD’s legal work is developing new ways to use existing laws to challenge actions that threaten the well-being of individuals and communities.

Causes of Action

Differences between Civil and Criminal Complaints


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