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Introduction to Legal Research: Primary Authority - Cases

Class guide for Prof. Bradley's sections

Types of Authority

Legal authority is any published source of law that presents the legal rules, legal doctrine, or legal reasoning that may be used as the basis for legal decisions. Authority refers to the types of legal information and to the weight or degree of persuasiveness of the legal information.

When used to describe types of legal information, there are two categories, primary or secondary. Primary authorities are authorized statements of the law by governmental institutions. These include written opinions of courts (case law); constitutions; legislation (statutes and codes); rules of court; and the rules, regulations and opinions of administrative agencies.

Secondary authorities are statements about the law and explain, interpret, develop, locate, or update primary authorities. For example, treatises, law review articles, American Law Reports annotations, Restatements of the Law, and looseleaf services are types of secondary authorities.

J. Myron Jacobstein, Roy M. Mersky, Donald J. Dunn, Fundamentals of Legal Research, 6th ed. (Foundation Press, 1994).

Understanding Authority

Benjamin J. Keele, Splitting Hairs: What Subtle Distinctions Teach Us About Authority, 16 AALL Spectrum 14 (Dec. 2011).

Briefing Cases

There are two kinds of "briefs". The appellate brief is written by an attorney and presents a legal argument presented to an appellate court. The student brief is a short summary and analysis of the case to use in classroom discussion. When a professor says "I want you to brief Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966)", he wants you to prepare a summary and analysis of the court's opinion and be ready to discuss the case.


When used to describe the degree of persuasiveness of legal information, authority is an estimation of the power of information to influence a legal decision. Authority may be binding (also referred to as mandatory or controlling) which means that a court or other decision-maker believes the authority applies to the case before it and must be followed. Only primary authority can be binding.

Authority which is not binding is persuasive which means that a decision-maker can, if so persuaded, follow it. Secondary authority can never be binding only persuasive. In our hierarchical court system lower courts are bound by the decisions of higher courts.

Jurisdiction Court of Limited Jurisdiction Court of Original Jurisdiction Intermediate Appellate Court Court of Last Resort
Federal U.S. Tax Court U.S. District Courts U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals U.S. Supreme Court
Georgia Magistrate Court
Probate Court
Superior Court Court of Appeals Supreme Court

District Court
Orphan's Court
Tax Court

Circuit Court Court of Special Appeals Court of Appeals

District Court
Probate Court
Municipal Court

Circuit Court Court of Appeals Supreme Court

City Court
Justice's Court

District Court   Supreme Court
New York Surrogates' Court
Town and Village Justice Court
Supreme Court Appellate Division of Supreme Court Court of Appeals

Magisterial District Judge Court
Philadelphia Municipal Court

Court of Common Pleas Superior Court
Commonwealth Court

Supreme Court

For other state court systems see the State Court Structure Charts.

J. Myron Jacobstein, Roy M. Mersky, Donald J. Dunn, Fundamentals of Legal Research, 6th ed. (Foundation Press, 1994).

Orin S. Kerr, How to Read a Legal Opinion: A Guide for New Law Students, 11 Green Bag 51 (2007).


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