The British Lawyer Who Inspired the American Legal System

Even those of us who know most of what we know about the legal system from watching TV dramas understand that there are certain underlying principles at work: fairness, rights and remedies, and neutral adjudication or “blind justice,” to name three.

What many people don't know is that those “common sense” rules that are part and parcel of modern American justice had to come from somewhere. They had to be established and written down.

One lawyer who was instrumental in creating those principles was Sir Edward Coke.

Sir Edward Coke’s Importance to the Legal Process

Coke was a judge in early 17th-century England who presided over a number of notable cases, perhaps the most famous of which was Thomas Bonham v College of Physicians, or simply Bonham's Case.

Thomas Bonham was a physician by training, but not by license, who was imprisoned for practicing medicine without permission from the College of Physicians, which at the time had what we would today call regulatory authority over doctors.

When Coke delivered the majority opinion, he relied upon a close reading of the laws associated with the College's charter, finding that the law delegated two distinct powers to the College: the ability to fine physicians for practicing without a license, and the ability to imprison physicians for malpractice.

Bonham stood accused of practicing without a license, but not of practicing dangerously; as such, the College had no right to imprison him.

However, Coke went further than this, ruling that the College's charter created an absurdity by allowing the same organization to act as both judge and party to a case. In Coke's words: “One cannot be Judge and attorney for any of the parties.”

In so doing, Coke upheld the principle of neutral adjudication, providing a level playing field and a fair hearing for both parties to a legal dispute. Even more importantly, he established precedent for the idea of judicial review.

Coke’s Influence Set Precedence for the Founding Fathers

Centuries later, Coke's ideas about the rule of law made quite an impression on our Founding Fathers, including John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. These were the precedents our nation's founders had in mind when they established a judicial system founded on principles of fairness, blind justice, rights and remedies.

In fact, Patrick Henry, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, John Jay, Daniel Webster, and other titans of American history all read Coke’s writing personally.

History tells us why taking cases to court and demanding justice is so important. Legislators are human, as are judges. Justice doesn't just happen; someone has to fight for their rights to be recognized. Legal cases aren't just about resolving the individual matter at hand. They're about advancing the ideas of fairness and justice for everyone.