Primary and Secondary Sources

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Primary and Secondary Sources

  1. 1. Discuss the general differences between primary and secondary authority.

A primary authority is a document that establishes the law on a particular issue, such as a case decision or legislative act. The search for applicable primary authority is an important part of the process of legal research. They have “first hand” information, rather than getting it from another source.

In the United States, examples of primary authority include the verbatim texts of:

  • Constitutions;

  • Statutes (whether codified or uncodified);

  • Court opinions[1];

  • Rules of court procedure;

  • Rules of evidence;

  • Rules governing the conduct of lawyers;

  • Administrative regulations;

  • Executive orders;

  • Treaties and certain other international law materials;

  • Municipal charters and ordinances.

In law, a secondary authority is an authority purporting to explain the meaning or applicability of the actual verbatim texts of primary authorities (such as constitutions, statutes, case law, administrative regulations, executive orders, treaties, or similar legal instruments). It takes the original information and explains it, rewords it, or comments on it.

Some secondary authority materials are written and published by governments to explain the laws in simple, non-technical terms, while other secondary authority materials are written and published by private companies, non-profit organizations, or other groups or individuals. Some examples of secondary authority are:

  • Law review articles, comments and notes (written by law professors, practicing lawyers, law students, etc.)

  • Legal textbooks, such as legal treatises and hornbooks

  • Legal digests, such as the West American Digest System

  • Annotations published in statute books, codes, or other materials, such as the annotations in the American Law Reports series

  • Legal encyclopedias (such as Corpus Juris Secundum and American Jurisprudence)

  • Legal dictionaries (such as Black's Law Dictionary)

  • Restatements of the Law published by the American Law Institute

  • Legal briefs and memoranda;

  • Tax forms and instructions published by governments

  • Government publications explaining or summarizing the laws

  • Government employee manuals (such as the Internal Revenue Manual for employees of the Internal Revenue Service)

  • Course materials from continuing legal education seminars

  • Debate in legislatures, including such commentaries published in the Congressional Record (this may reveal legislative intent)

  • Other similar materials

Although secondary authorities are sometimes used in legal research (especially, to allow a researcher to gain a preliminary, overall understanding of an unfamiliar area of law) and are sometimes even cited by courts in deciding cases, secondary authorities are generally afforded less weight than the actual texts of primary authority.

  1. Name the characteristics of mandatory authority and the characteristics of persuasive authority.

A decision of a particular court is mandatory authority, whether it must be followed by another court, but it depends on the source of the decision. As a general rule, the decisions of a court will be mandatory authority for any court lower in the hierarchy, such as a federal trial court must consider the U.S. Supreme Court decisions as mandatory. Decisions from a court lower than the one in question are never mandatory.

3. List the names of the seven regional reporters in the National Reporter System, the kinds of opinions found within them, and the publisher of these reporters.
Atlantic Reporter

California Reporter

Northeastern Reporter

Northwestern Reporter

Southeastern Reporter

Southwestern Reporter

Southern Reporter
These are appellate opinions from the appeals courts and Supreme Courts of the various states.

4. What is meant when we say an opinion is on point to a client’s case?

That means that the holding (main rule or decision of the court) is deciding the same issue as the one in a client’s case. This is true even if the facts of the case might be different.

5. Provide the names of the two major books on citation guidelines.

The Bluebook

The Maroon Book

6. List the 2 major legal encyclopedias.
American Jurisprudence (AmJur)

Corpus Juris Secundum (CJS)


1. F.3d. currently prints opinions from which court/s?

United States Courts of Appeals and United States Courts of Federal Claims

2. F. Supp. 2d currently prints opinions from which court/s?

Opinions from Federal Trial courts

3. When is a lower court required to follow a higher court’s opinion in the same judicial system?


4. Explain the difference/s between an official reporter and an unofficial reporter.

An official reporter is sanctioned by law or by some other official authority to report opinions.

Unofficial reporters are not official sanctioned and just do it as a commercial venture.

5. Is a higher court ever required to follow a lower court’s opinion in the same judicial system? Why or why not? No.


Research the structure of your own court systems (both state and federal), provide the corresponding reporters for each court level and indicate which court opinions are binding on each courts within those systems.

Provide the name of your state my state is Massachusetts.

Massachusetts has district courts, and appeals court and a Supreme Judicial Court.

The Supreme Judicial court opinions are reported by the North Eastern Reporter.

The Appeals court is reported by the Massachusetts Appeals Court Reports.

Federal Courts—
Trial Level is the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts (Fed Supp.)
Appeals from that Court is the U.S. court of Appeals for the First Circuit

(F. 3d)

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