Roman Influence on American Law

My tendency of late to draw comparisons between the Ancient Romans and modern America has drawn criticism from some quarters with these critics saying that both peoples are different, distinct and separated from each other by two millennia and therefore using Roman actions as a guide to implementing American policy is inapplicable.

We could debate this issue but I believe that by focusing on the legal systems of both civilizations we can see that they are indeed entwined with one another.

Roman law has influenced American law and this can be seen transparently in the common and extensive use of Latin terms, like res judicata or pro se, in American law.  We also break up our body of law Roman style as can been seen in the separate studies of contracts, property, wills, trusts and criminal law.

During American slavery many of the property notions dealing with slaves were without doubt drawn from Roman slave law.  Romans treated three groups differently under the law and they were people who were born free, people who had been freed and slaves.

Some might say that this is still not conclusive.  Well then you can turn to the online Berkeley Law Library where you will find an 1805 New York case called Pierson v. Post (3 Cai R 175) which cites directly to Roman law (Just. Inst., lib. 2 tit. 1, sec. 13).  By the way this case is studied in many first year law school property classes.

This case has also been discussed in many law review articles.  (See, 55 Duke L. 1089 (2006); 27 Law & Hist. Rev. 189 (2009); and 18 JL Econ. 39 (2002))

But most importantly Pierson has been cited in modern American state and federal cases.  New York attorney Scott Howard has reported as such and has discovered that the case has even been cited in a 1977 U.S. Supreme Court case (Douglas v. Seacoast, 97 S.Ct. 1740 at 1753) meaning that it is still good law and the Roman influence strong even today.

Therefore Roman law lives in modern American law making Roman policy precedents applicable to modern American policy making and this should be considered a strong basis against re-inventing the wheel when it comes to contemporary policy matters.