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Legal Research Manual

This edition of Legal Research Manual builds on many previous editions. While the manual is designed principally for use with the first year legal research classes, upper year law students will also find it a useful reference.

State Court Systems

Courts of Ultimate Review

All states, by constitution or legislation, provide for one court of ultimate review. In most of the states the highest appellate court is called the Supreme Court, but it may also be called the Court of Appeals or Supreme Court of Appeals. The courts of last resort hear appeals from lower state trial courts or courts of intermediate appeal. They have ultimate jurisdiction over controversies involving the interpretation of the state constitution and state law.

Intermediate Appellate Courts

Most states have intermediate appellate courts. They may be called appellate courts or superior courts. Generally, they exercise appellate jurisdiction but may have special original jurisdiction. There is permissive review by the highest state court.

Trial Courts

Trial courts have general jurisdiction to handle civil, criminal, equity, and probate cases. States may have separate civil and criminal and family divisions, and may have separate probate or surrogate courts.

Courts of Limited or Special Jurisdiction

Numerous special courts exist to handle petty criminal and petty civil matters. These include small claims courts, traffic courts, special family or juvenile courts. There may be overlapping jurisdiction between these courts and trial courts.

Concurrent Jurisdiction and Stare Decisis

Federal and state courts may have overlapping or concurrent jurisdiction in some matters. Generally, federal courts do not deal with cases arising under the laws of individual states and vice-versa; however, there are instances in which each may hear cases on matters generally falling within the purview of the other.

The normal rules of stare decisis and judicial precedent regarding binding and persuasive authorities apply within each of the federal and state court systems. The rules, however, become complex when a state court is enforcing federal laws, or when a federal court is applying state law.

These rules are too complex to summarize here. However, for the purposes of legal research it is important to understand that there may be relevant cases decided both in the state court system and in the federal court system. For example, even though family law may be primarily a question of state law, and therefore one would search for cases in the state court systems, there may also be relevant family law cases in the federal courts.