LESSON 2: PRIMARY LEGAL AUTHORITY IN THE FEDERAL SYSTEM
2.4 Judicial Decisions
2.4.2 Findings of Fact vs. Findings of Law
Annotated Lecture Transcript
For a trial judge, many times the proper application of a law will be clear from the plaintext of the blackletter primary authority governing the topic.
A statute says you can’t drive over 65 miles per hour on the highway.
The defendant was caught driving 80.
The law is clear.
The only thing for the trial judge to decide is whether or not the defendant really was going 80 miles per hour.
Her primary role is to make a finding of fact based on the evidence presented at trial.
Judicial decisions are important because they contain binding determinations on questions of law.
When ambiguity exists as to an essential aspect of the legal rule needed for proper disposition of a case at trial, the trial judge will issue a ruling that decides which of the competing interpretations of the law prevails.
After the trial is over, the litigants may appeal a lower court’s ruling on a question of law to an appellate court.
Appellate courts generally focus only on legal determinations not findings of fact by the trial judge or jury.
Appellate courts decide whether the trial judge’s interpretation and application of the law was correct.
They issue a holding and it is this holding that becomes binding as a matter of law.
It must be followed by all lower courts within the jurisdiction of the court deciding the issue.
This holding is issued and explained by the appellate court in an opinion.
Judicial opinions detail the court’s holding and the reasoning behind why they decided things the way they did.
The appellate court’s legal determination will then be binding on all lower courts within its jurisdiction according to the Doctrine of Stare Decisis.
 See 5 Am Jur 2d Appellate Review § 560.