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The framers of the U.S. Constitution clearly believed that the interpretation of constitutional rights should be entrusted to specialists. Article III provides for an independent judicial power equal in power to the executive and legislative branches, and one which has jurisdiction over both states and individuals. It also created a federal judiciary with the power to determine whether Congress had exceeded its powers, and the power to review state court decisions in certain cases.

Early colonial legislation was primarily reviewed by administrative authorities in the mother countries (e.g., England, Spain, France). As colonial industry and population increased (to approximately 300,000 in 1700), review of colonial legislation came under increasing scrutiny. As for colonists, the necessity of dealing in commercial matters with English merchants, and the reliance on English law to support colonists’ grievances against the crown, enhanced the desire to create a native force of legal professionals who understood the nuances of legal terms and clauses.

Apprenticeships were completed in a manner similar to England’s Inns of Court. There was no formal “admission” to practice law, but, following “book” study and apprenticeship, prospective lawyers were “accepted” into practice by local and experienced members of the profession. By the time of the American Revolution, each colony had a bar of legally trained and respected professionals.

Eventually and especially in colonial cities, the legal profession enjoyed both social status and economic success. With such status, colonial lawyers became increasingly involved in politics as well; 25 of the 56 signatories to the Declaration of Independence were lawyers.

Inside History