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Legal Research Basics


The ultimate goal of legal research is to find the relevant primary law (statutes, regulations, cases, etc.) that governs your legal issue. Ideally, you are looking for mandatory authority - that is, primary law that is binding on the court that you are appearing before. Read carefully as it can be tricky to determine whether the primary law is mandatory. To get started, ask yourself two questions: 1) Are the legal issues in your case governed by state or federal law (there may be both)? and 2) Which court are you in? Are you in federal or state court? Are you in a trial court, an intermediate appellate court, or a court of last resort? Once you know the answers to these questions, you are well on your way to determining whether a decision, statute, or regulation is mandatory or persuasive.

If you can't locate mandatory authority you may have to resort to persuasive authority - that is, primary law that is not binding, but that may be instructive for the court such as opinions from similar or surrounding jurisdictions. Think of persuasive authority as just that, persuasive. It is primary law or secondary sources used to persuade the court to rule one way in the absence of mandatory authority. 

Types of Primary Law

Primary laws are the actual laws created by our government to be followed and enforced. There are four types of primary law: constitutions, statutes, opinions, and regulations (also called Administrative Decisions). Each type of primary law stems from a different branch of the government given specific powers under the Constitution. 



These branches interact with each other.  You may remember the phrase "checks and balances". 


Constitutions, Statutes, and Regulations

For many legal issues, there may be federal and state constitutional provisions, statutes, or regulations on point. While federal law generally trumps state law, this is not always the case. It is possible that both laws may apply or even that only the state law will apply. 

The U.S. Constitution provides a floor of protections, not a ceiling. State constitutions may provide additional protections not specifically addressed in the U.S. Constitution. If a conflict arises between federal and state constitutions, the state constitution will govern in that state's courts.

The same may hold true when federal and state statutes or regulations conflict as well. For example, California law provides that the current minimum wage in California is $16.00, while federal law provides that the minimum wage is $7.25. In California, state law will apply. However, if the conflict occurred in the opposite way (i.e., federal law provided a higher minimum wage than state law), the federal law would apply.

Case Law

Opinions (or cases as they are often called) also face a state vs. federal dilemma. There are two distinct court systems (you guessed it, state and federal). The specific court that your case is in will determine which court system has authority over your issue. 

Higher courts bind lower courts within their particular state or circuit. 

  • Ex. Decisions of the California Supreme Court bind the California Courts of Appeal.
  • Ex. Decisions of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals bind the U.S. District Courts within the Ninth Circuit.

Remember the State/Federal distinction - state courts usually bind only courts within that state, and federal courts usually bind only courts within that circuit.

  • Ex. Decisions of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals do not bind the California Superior Courts.
  • Ex. Decisions of the California Supreme Court do not bind the U.S. District Courts within California.

But things get complicated when Federal courts apply State law...

  • Ex. If the Ninth Circuit is resolving an issue under California, rather than Federal, law, the decisions of the California Supreme Court are binding on it.

See the Court Structures page for a more in depth look at how the courts are organized.