Fundamentals of Legal Research
Adam J. McKee, Ph.D.
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Case law arises from the written opinions of appeals courts. Appeals arise out of legal errors that occurred in a lower court. In other words, the plaintiff argues that the trial court failed to follow the law properly. For example, a criminal defendant may appeal a conviction based on the legal notion that evidence was improperly admitted by the trial judge.
The Appellate Role
In the United States, most court systems are organized into hierarchies of courts. The lowest level of the court systems represents the trial courts. This is where most litigation occurs in both civil and criminal cases. The appellate courts, on the other hand, serve primarily to review the activities of the lower courts. These courts are not interested in matters of fact; they are interested in procedural errors and other matters of law.
Another important function of the appellate courts is the formulation of rules of conduct that help regulate our society. These rules are transmitted in the form of case law. These rules, established by the high courts, are very powerful in that the lower courts are bound (meaning not optional) to follow the precedent set forth. The higher the court, the more influential its decisions are. In constitutional matters, every court in the United States is bound to follow the precedents set forth by the United States Supreme Court. This means that the written opinions of the Supreme Court are very influential indeed. This impressive power and scope explain the emphasis on Supreme Court cases in many university law classes.
The Doctrine of Precedent
Arising from the common law tradition is the doctrine of stare decisis, otherwise known as the doctrine of precedent. The basic idea of this doctrine is that precedent—legal findings that came before—should be followed in future cases. A major argument for the doctrine of precedent is the idea of fundamental fairness. It makes sense that the law should treat people in similar circumstances equally. Following precedent also promotes predictability; we can predict the outcome of a particular case by examining the way the courts handled factually similar cases in the past.
Because the doctrine of precedent is so important, much of legal research involves taking a set of factual circumstances and determining of a precedent exists for them. A prior case that matches a current set of factual circumstances is known in legal circles as a case in point. To be considered a case in point, the case most closely resemble the factual circumstances of the case at hand. Identifying a case in point is a critical skill in legal research. Also to finding cases in point, the competent legal researcher must also be able to determine if the case is still good law. In other words, it must be determined if the court has altered the decision in any way, and if so, how.
When a lower court has no other legal choice but to follow the precedent set forth by a higher court, that authority is said to be binding on the lower court. Only decisions from the same jurisdiction are binding on the lower courts. If the Texas Supreme Court establishes a precedent, then all courts in Texas must follow it. Courts in Mississippi, on the other hand, can freely ignore the rulings of the Texas Supreme Court. When an appellate decision is binding on a lower court, it is referred to as mandatory authority.
While courts are not required to pay attention to cases decided by courts in other jurisdiction, these cases may make compelling arguments that are persuasive. For this reason, cases from other jurisdictions are often offered as persuasive authority. The Court may be swayed by persuasive authority, but may go in a completely different direction. Note that while trial courts at the federal level do occasionally publish decisions, this does not create case law. In other words, the decisions of the trial courts do not create binding authority on any lower courts.
The Appellate Process
The basic function of trial courts (both criminal and civil) is to resolve a factual dispute. Matters of fact are left up to the “finder of fact,” which is a jury in the case of a jury trial or the judge in the case of a bench trial. No case law results from these sorts of cases. Do not confuse the idea of a case report and a case record. Trial courts of general jurisdiction are courts of record. This means that very detailed records of the proceedings are maintained. Every document is filed, and a stenographer records every statement made in the courtroom. It does not mean that the trial judge will write an explanation of why the court ruled as it did.
Most appeals cases arise because one party to the case was dissatisfied with the judgment of the trial court. Most initial appeals will be filed in an intermediate appellate court. In other words, the hierarchy of the courts must be followed. Plaintiffs rarely get the chance to move directly to a court of last resort. The appellate court will review the case and render an opinion. If the resulting opinion is published, then it becomes case law (which can be altered or nullified on appeal to a still higher court).
The losing party can attempt to appeal the case to the court of last resort. Most trials are conducted in state courts, and the appeals process starts in state appellate courts. The court of last resort in these circumstances is the state’s Supreme Court. This is commonly done by filing a petition for a writ of certiorari. In most cases, the high courts have the discretionary authority to refuse to hear a case. If the high court does hear the case, it will review the legal questions involved and issue a written opinion. Such opinions become case law, and the matter is usually settled. Occasionally, a federal constitutional question will merit review by the United States Supreme Court. If the federal Supreme Court decides to hear the case, it will decide on the legal issues and issue a written opinion. Such opinions become case law and are the final say in the matter (unless the court decides later to overrule itself).
When an appeals court hears a case, it is essentially considering a legal question that has already been decided by a lower court. When the appellate court considering a case decides that the lower court treated the matter correctly, then it will affirm the lower court’s decisions. That is the decision of the lower court stands. When the appellate court disagrees with the decision of the lower court, it can overturn or changes the lower court’s decision. When an appellate court overturns the decision of a lower court, it will often remand the case. Remanding the case means sending it back to the original court for further consideration. Much of the time, this means sending the case back to the trial court for a retrial. Whatever the outcome, the appellate court will always render a written decision that analyzes the legal issues presented in the case, and explain why the court ruled as it did. This review will nearly always review the primary legal authorities at issue.
Modification History File Created: 08/08/2018 Last Modified: 06/13/2019
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