About Our Legal System

Most anyone who has had a civics or American government course has seen, and perhaps been forced to memorize, the flow chart “how a bill becomes a law.” While it is true that federal statutes are made by congressional enactment and presidential approval, and that state statutes result from legislative enactment and gubernatorial approval, that does not account for the entire body of “the law.”

“Common law,” or judge-made law, consists of legal principles that judges have set down over time in published rulings. Although not enacted by any legislative body, common law can be decisive in the outcome of a legal dispute; cases can be dismissed, property can change hands, and damages can be awarded based on common-law principles not found in any statute book. That is why the chapters that follow will focus heavily on examining judicial opinions.

The courts of this country are divided into two groups: state and federal. Generally, federal courts hear claims based on alleged violations of federal statutes or the United States Constitution. State courts hear cases involving state statutes or common (court-made) law or a state’s constitution. For example, a First Amendment claim charging public school officials with censorship is typically brought in federal court because the First Amendment is part of the United States Constitution. A lawsuit accusing campus police officials of violating a state’s open records law or claiming that a principal has violated a state’s student free expression law will typically be brought in state court. It is possible for a federal court to hear a state law claim (and vice versa) but usually that happens only when state and federal law questions are both part of one case.

Federal and state courts are divided into trial courts, which hear the case initially, and one or more levels of appellate courts. While the specific names of state courts vary, all federal trial courts are called district courts. There are 94 federal districts in the country, at least one in each state. No district overlaps two states. Each federal district court has jurisdiction to hear cases within its geographic area. Someone who loses his case can appeal from a federal district court to a circuit court of appeals. There are thirteen of these around the country. All but one have jurisdiction over district courts within the geographic boundaries of their circuit.

The Federal Circuit Court System

There are 11 geographically divided circuits, one District of Columbia circuit and a federal circuit, which hears only specific types of cases and appeals from district courts in cases where the federal government is a defendant.

  • First Circuit: Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island
  • Second Circuit: Connecticut, New York, Vermont
  • Third Circuit: Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virgin Islands
  • Fourth Circuit: Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, Virginia
  • Fifth Circuit: Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas
  • Sixth Circuit: Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee
  • Seventh Circuit: Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin
  • Eighth Circuit: Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota
  • Ninth Circuit: Alaska, Arizona, California, Guam, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Northern Mariana Islands, Oregon, Washington
  • Tenth Circuit: Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, Wyoming
  • Eleventh Circuit: Alabama, Florida, Georgia

Parties to a lawsuit decided by a federal court of appeals can ask the United States Supreme Court to review their case. However, the Supreme Court typically can choose the cases it wants to consider. There is no appeal beyond the U.S. Supreme Court.

Decisions of a federal court of appeals must be followed by all of the district courts located within that circuit. District courts outside that circuit, however, are not bound by such decisions. Further, one district court does not have to follow the rulings of any other district court. A court is bound only by the decisions of higher courts that have direct jurisdiction over it. This is the concept of precedent. Because it is the highest court in the country, all courts must follow precedent established by the United States Supreme Court. When one court must follow the rulings of another court, it is called mandatory, or binding, precedent. Note, however, that state courts do not have to follow the rulings of federal courts on matters solely based on state law, and vice versa. For example, while the U.S. Supreme Court significantly reduced the amount of First Amendment protection available to most high school student journalists in its Hazelwood decision — a ruling based only on federal law — a state court may, nevertheless, find that high school journalists in its state remain protected by state law.

Cases that are not mandatory precedent may nonetheless be persuasive to a court. For example, although the federal District Court for the Northern District of California (which is located in the Ninth Circuit) is not bound by a ruling from the First Circuit on a particular point of law, it may still find the logic in the decision persuasive and choose to adopt it. If that occurs, it is said that the court has adopted the precedent. When discussing student press law, it is important to remember that precedent that may be mandatory in one federal circuit or state may not be mandatory in another.

If a court refuses to follow precedent or misinterprets a precedent, its decision may be reversed by a higher court. A court has the option, rarely exercised, to reverse its own precedent, although usually such precedent is distinguished, meaning that the court decides that the facts in the present case are so different from the facts in the past case that the court need not reach the same conclusion. Courts can be very creative in finding differences between fact situations that will allow them to distinguish the case in front of them from what might seem, to everyone else, to be binding precedent.

A Quick Guide to Legal Citations

Legal citations may look difficult, but they are not that difficult to understand.

Let us use as an example the case citation below:

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In this case, a University of North Carolina student named Robert Arrington sued University Chancellor Ferebee Taylor. The person who is suing is usually called the plaintiff and the person being sued the defendant. There can be more than one plaintiff and defendant, but usually only the last name of the first person in each party will be given in the citation. For trial court decisions, the first name listed is the plaintiff. But when cases are appealed, the names can reverse order depending on who asked the appellate court to hear the case.

The Arrington case was first reported in volume 380 of the Federal Supplement, beginning on page 1348. The Federal Supplement is a set of books that publish the decisions of federal district courts. The parenthetical indicates that the first court to hear the case was the district court for the Middle District of North Carolina. The judge in that court handed down his decision in 1974. In 1975, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit decided the case. Its opinion can be found beginning on page 587 of volume 526 of the set of books called the Federal Reporter. Note that F. Supp. is the abbreviation for Federal Supplement and F., F.2d or F.3d is the citation form for the Federal Reporter. There are currently three series of the Federal Reporter; Arrington was reported in the second series, thus the "2d" in the citation.

This citation also tells you that the Fourth Circuit affirmed (agreed with) the decision of the Middle District of North Carolina. Had it decided differently, the citation would read rev'd, short for "reversed," or "vacated." The case was then taken to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to consider it. That is the meaning of cert. denied (certiorari denied). A petition for certiorari is a request for the Supreme Court to hear a case. Had the Court taken the case, the Supreme Court citation would have said either "aff'd," "rev'd," or "vacated" depending on the Court's decision. A decision by the U.S. Supreme Court takes the form [volume] U.S. [page number] (date). For example, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260 (1988). "U.S." stands for the set of books called the United States Reports. Supreme Court cases can also be found under citations reading "L. Ed." (Lawyers Edition U.S. Supreme Court Reports) or "S. Ct." (United States Supreme Court Reporter).

Occasionally you will find a citation to a statute. Federal laws are cited in much the same way as court decisions, and appear in the United States Code. For example, the federal Freedom of Information Act can be found at 5 U.S.C. section 552 (volume 5 of the United States Code, section 552).

State court decisions can be found in a number of places. Many states publish their own case reporters, or contract out to have a reporter published for the state court system. The National Reporter System, however, is the easiest way to find most cases from state courts and is used for state cases in this book wherever possible. Example: Metter v. Los Angeles Examiner, 95 P.2d 670 (Cal. App. 1939). This case is found in the Pacific Reporter, Second Series, beginning on page 670 of volume 95. It is a 1939 case from the California Court of Appeals. National Reporter System citations include Pacific (P.), Atlantic (A.), Southern (So.), Southeastern (S.E.), Southwestern (S.W.), Northeastern (N.E.), and Northwestern (N.W.) reporters. Because the system was established before our current ideas of geography formed, these abbreviations may seem strange to you; Tennessee is in the Southwestern Reporter, for example, while Kansas is in the Pacific Reporter. A cite to "Med. L. Rptr." refers to the Media Law Reporter, published by The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. (BNA), Washington, D.C.

Court opinions or lawyer's briefs sometimes quote from scholarly legal publications such as university law journals (e.g., the Harvard Law Review) or Restatements, which are authoritative complications of common-law principles updated periodically by leading scholars. Citations to these publications are similar to court case citations. Citations to state statutes vary by the state, but are generally fairly easy to decipher.

Where a citation is trying to point the reader to a specific sentence or passage in a court ruling, rather than the ruling as a whole, the decision will be "pinpoint" cited with an additional page number. For example, "436 So.2d 1300, 1303" means that the case begins on page 1300 of Southern 2d, volume 436, and that the specific portion being cited can be found on page 1303. If a citation is to the same case as the previous footnote, but with a different page number, the format 436 So.2d at 1304 or Id. at 1304 is used. When used alone, the abbreviation "Id." means that the cite is identical to the one preceding it.

If you would like to read some of the cases and statutes cited on our website, check out our ever-expanding SPLC Law Library or visit a library that has legal materials (for example, a law school library, a large public library, or a local courthouse library) and ask the librarian for guidance.

— Excerpted from Law of the Student Press, 3rd ed.