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Username: Christine

Post Number: 1256
Registered: 09-2002
Posted on Saturday, August 16, 2003 - 04:21 am:   Edit Post Delete Post Print Post    Move Post (Moderator/Admin Only)

This is a repost from, posted by lawguy.


I'll give a quick primer on the relevency of case law.

We have two separate court systems in this country, the federal system and the state systems for each individual state.

The federal system is composed of the US District Courts (organized by state, i.e. the geographical boundaries of a district court will be contained fully within a state), above that are the US Circuit Courts of Appeal (which will include in its jurisdiction the district courts from various states), and above that is the US Supreme Court, which covers the entire country. (There are numerous other types of federal courts, i.e bankruptcy courts, but I'll keep this as simple as I can)

In the states, you usually have trial courts (circuit or district courts) which are ususlly organized by county. Above that, some states, but not all, have Courts of Appeal, which typically cover the entire state but sometimes only a number of counties, and the state's Supreme Court, covering the entire state.

A Court opinion is a written decision made by a court. This is what we usually mean by case law.

A Court's opinion is binding on any court that 1) falls within its geographical reach, 2) is lower on the chain that the deciding court, and 3) both courts are in the same system (i.e. state or federal).

For example, the 4th Circuit (fed) contains all the fed district courts in the states of NC, SC, VA, WV, and MD. If the 4th Circuit makes a binding decision, all the district courts in those states are bound to follow it. The 4th Circuit's decision is authoritative within its jurisdiction.

However, a district or circuit court that is not in the 4th Circuit, say the Eastern District Court of NY, is not bound to follow that decision. If the decision is relevant to what the court is considering, they may review the case, but they are under no obligation or duty to follow it, or even mention it in their decision. Then again, they may be so convinced by the opinion that they decide to adopt it in full. The point is that they don't have to do anything with it they don't want to.

Usually, the federal courts deal only with questions of federal law and the state courts deal only with questions of state law. However, sometimes this gets mixed up, with a state court interpreting federal law or a federal court interpreting state law.

If a federal court is interpreting state law, then that decision has no binding affect on any court except for the federal courts in that state that are below that federal court, if any. For example, an automobile accident case is tried in the Eastern District of NC (because of diversity jurisdiction). The District court will be applying NC state law to determine the case. Lets say this case is then appealed to the 4th Circuit. The 4th Circuit will be applying NC law as well. However, its decision will not bind any of the NC state courts, because the NC state Supreme Court is the final arbitrer of NC state law. But the 4th Circuit's interpretation of NC state law will bind the NC federal District Courts in their interpretation of NC state law (subject to the overpowering decisions of the NC state courts of appeals).

Still, the NC Supreme court may look at the 4th circuit's decision and consider it very persuasive.

On the other hand, a state court interpreting federal law has no binding affect on any federal court. It will be binding on the lower state courts, so long as there is no overpowering decision by a federal district or circuit court that includes that state court.

Confused yet?

State courts are of course not binding on the courts of any other state.

Also, trial court decisions (orders and judgments) have virtually no weight on another court. You could maybe use them as an example of how to rule, but they can only be persuasive and are never authoritative. Generally though, they just aren't used. Better off to find cases from an appeals court in another state than to use written orders from a trial court.

Written opinions by a trial court have very little weight even in that trial courts jurisdiction. In the Southern District of WV, there is an amazing split on a very important issue among all the judges in the district. Each judge has his own way of dealing with the issue, and they have each written official decisions on this. However, none of them are authoritative on anybody.

Also, sometimes a written opinion just isn't binding on anybody at all. A decision that is "per curiam" (i.e. "for the court") has no weight in some jurisdictions. A per curiam decision is not attributed to any particular justice, but rather it is just a statement by the entire court. In some states, these have no precedential value at all. In others, they carry the full weight of a written opinion. These kinds of decisions are usually based on procedural matters and are more directions to the lower courts on how to deal with the present case, rather than a substantive change to the law.

Sorry if thats confusing, but maybe that will help ya'll understand how important a case is and whether it can be useful to you.

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