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The Unique Legal System of Louisiana

Essential Question 

  • What is the civil law system and why is Louisiana the only state to use it?  


Louisiana is a blend of cultures. African, English, French, Spanish, Native American, Haitian, and many others all have shaped the state in various ways. This helps give Louisiana some unique characteristics that stand apart in the United States. For example, while almost all states have “counties,” Louisiana has what are called “parishes,” which comes from the French and Spanish Catholic influences in the area. Another unique characteristic of Louisiana is that it is the only state that uses a civil law system—the other 49 use what is called a common law system. What is the civil law system? And, why is Louisiana the only state to use it? 



  • Students will analyze the historical context that led to the creation of the Napoleonic Code. 
  • Students will compare the key features of civil law and common law systems. 
  • Students will explain how Louisiana’s history shaped its unique legal system. 



  • Show students a few images or a short video clip depicting the French Revolution (ensure it is age-appropriate). Ask them: what kind of problems might a country face after a major revolution? List student ideas on the board. 
  • Explain that after the French Revolution, France needed a new legal system to replace the old, disorganized one. Introduce Napoleon Bonaparte and his role in creating the Napoleonic Code. 
  • Have students complete a KWL chart (What I Know, What I Want to Learn, What I Learned) about legal systems. 


  • Project a short excerpt from the Napoleonic Code (translated to English) focusing on clear and concise principles. Have students read it together and answer a few guiding questions: What are some key ideas you find in this excerpt? Do any of these ideas seem familiar to American laws? 
  • Sample Passages: 
    • Passage 1 (On Property Rights): Article 544: Ownership is the right to enjoy and dispose of things in the most absolute manner, provided that one does not make a use of them prohibited by the laws or ordinances, and that one does not act in a way that prejudices the rights of others. 
    • Passage 2 (On Contracts): Article 1134: To be valid, a contract must be entered into by competent parties, consent to it must be free and genuine, the object of the contract must be lawful, and the cause for entering into it must be lawful. 
    • Passage 3 (On Personal Rights): Article 1382: Any act of man whatsoever, causing damage to another, obliges him by whose fault it happened to make reparation. 
    • Passage 4 (On Individual Rights and Equality): Article 6: All men are equal before the law. They enjoy all civil rights. No one can be placed in a position that prejudices him, either in respect of his person or his property, or in respect of his rights. 
  • Divide students into pairs or small groups. Distribute the “Napoleonic Code vs. Common Law” comparison chart. Using the provided links, students research and complete a Venn diagram contrasting the two systems.  Some things they may want to look for include: 
    • History of the system 
    • Source of law 
    • Role of judges and/or juries 
    • Burden of proof 
  • Reconvene the class and have student groups share their completed comparison Venn Diagrams. Facilitate a discussion to identify key similarities and differences between civil and common law. 
  • Explain how Louisiana’s history as a French colony led to the adoption of the Napoleonic Code as the basis for its legal system. Discuss why Louisiana remains the only U.S. state with a civil law system. 


Return to the essential question. Have students explain why Louisiana uses a civil law system based on the Napoleonic Code. Encourage them to consider both historical and practical reasons.  Students can respond in writing or on video. 

Extend (20 minutes)

  • Divide the class into two sections: “Civil Law Court” and “Common Law Court.” Present a simple legal scenario (e.g., property dispute) and have each section research how their respective court system would handle the case. Students could then present their findings to the class, highlighting the differences in approaches. 
  • For a more advanced activity, have students hold a debate on the merits of each legal system. One side argues for the superiority of civil law, while the other argues for common law.