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Introduction to Legal Research: Legal Concepts

What is "The Law"

Law, simply put, is the formal pronouncement of the rules which guide our actions. Legislatures, state and federal, make laws. So do local governments. Executive branches and agencies implement laws through regulations. Courts enforce and interpret laws and regulations and settle disputes through their decisions.

The output of these law making bodies goes into print and online resources. The material produced by these groups becomes much of what is in law libraries and what lawyers consult during their legal research. The collection of materials are referred to by specific terminology:

  • Legislation (statutes, laws)
    • session laws, statutory codes
  • Regulations
    • administrative codes, registers
  • Court decisions or opinions
    • reports, reporter

Outline of the U.S. Legal System, Bureau of International Information Programs, United States Department of State (PDF)

So how does someone find the relevant law? How do you identify specific documents in these reporters and codes? First, keep in mind there is a great difference between retrieving a known document and researching or trying to find documents that help you answer a legal question. If you have a citation to a specific legal document like a statute or a court decision it is fairly easy to retrieve that specific document. [See the Citations tab.] Conducting actual legal research is much more complex. The legal publishing world has created a number of research aids:

  • Indexes are common to most fields. In law they are generally used to locate journal articles.
  • Legal encyclopedias function much the same way as a general encyclopedia.
  • Digests are a unique legal research tool that acts like a cumulative index to all court decisions.
  • Looseleaf services provide analysis, practice advice, and current updates to rapidly changing fields like tax and environmental law.
  • Treatises provide a scholarly, in-depth treatment of a topic and they can be very in-depth. For instance one set covering just federal civil procedure runs to 26 volumes.

Precedent

Precedent is based on stare decisis, which means “to stand on what has been decided". The principle developed in English common law and establishes that the decision of a court not only settles a dispute between the parties involved but also sets a precedent or model to be followed in future, similar cases. The idea is that we all benefit by the consistency of courts interpreting the same statute in the same way.

A decision is binding authority (also called mandatory or controlling) on the court that issued the decision and on lower courts in the same jurisdiction for the disposition of factually similar controversies. In a hierarchical system like our state and federal court systems, the decision of a trial court can bind future decisions of that trial court, but the decisions do not bind other trial courts or appellate courts. Appellate courts can bind themselves and lower courts over which they have appellate jurisdiction, but appellate courts cannot bind each other by their decisions.

Jurisdiction

Another important principle in our legal system is that of jurisdiction.

Levels

  • Federal
  • State
  • Local
  • Administrative

Jurisdiction is power, the power or authority of the court to decide a matter in controversy. The authority to compel witnesses to testify or command people to turn over documents or property, or to jail them for contempt. Jurisdiction is established in constitutions and by statute and is usually done geographically or by subject.

Types

  • Concurrent
  • Exclusive

There are some matters over which a state or federal court has exclusive jurisdiction and some matters over which a state court has concurrent jurisdiction with the federal courts. Federal courts can, in some instances, decide questions of state law; state courts can, in some instances, decide questions of federal law. Sometimes it might be difficult to determine which matters are questions of federal, or state law, or both.

Court Structure

The final concept is the court structure. In general, there are trial courts and appellate courts.

Trial Courts

 

  • Where the trial is held (courts of first instance or impression).
  • Parties appear, witnesses testify, and the evidence is presented.
  • Basic function of a trial court to determine questions of fact in dispute and then applies the applicable rules of law.

 

Appellate Courts

 

  • The losing party generally has a right of appeal to an appellate court.
  • Each state has a final court of appeals or court of last resort. Thirty-eight states also have intermediate courts of appeals.
  • The appellate court decides questions of law and its decision in each case is based on the trial record from below, e.g., pre-trial proceedings and trial transcript. Appellate courts do not receive new testimony or decide questions of fact, and in most jurisdictions only the appellate courts issue written opinions.

When a case is appealed to an appellate court, both parties submit written briefs that contain a summary of the facts and arguments on the points of law involved, and the court may hear oral arguments by the attorneys. The court then issues an opinion which states the legal basis for the decision.

If the case is decided by an intermediate appellate court, the losing party may be able to appeal one more time. This second appeal is usually at the discretion of the higher court.

U.S. Courts

State Court Structure Charts

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