Intelligence Law School - Course 1: Lesson 6.1.5 Jurisdictional Limits of Lower Court Precedent

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6.1 Hierarchy of Judicial Opinions

6.1.5 Jurisdictional Limits of Lower Court Precedent

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6.1.5 Jurisdictional Limits of Lower Court Precedent

Lower federal courts also create binding precedent which represents law within the court’s statutory jurisdiction.

A circuit court’s holding is binding on all district courts within its jurisdiction.

A ruling by the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, for example, would be binding on all district courts in all 4 districts in New York as well as district courts in Vermont and Connecticut, but it would not be binding as mandatory primary legal authority in a district court in Virginia because Virginia courts fall within the jurisdiction of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

It would be still fall into the category of primary legal authority, but in Virginia it would be persuasive primary authority rather than mandatory primary authority because it comes from a foreign jurisdiction.


Remember that the jurisdiction of all Circuit Courts is established by Congress through statutes.

The Second Circuit has no jurisdiction to issue mandatory legal holdings that are binding outside of its statutorily defined territory of New York, Vermont, and Connecticut.


The Supreme Court is the only federal court with any independent constitutional jurisdiction, and that independent constitutional jurisdiction is still pretty limited.

The lion’s share of the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction is determined by Congress through statute just like lower courts.


Still, as a basic matter, just remember that the hierarchy of judicial opinions goes up the ladder just like you would expect it to.

Ø  The weakest holdings are the holdings of the lowest courts—the trial courts—which are called the United States District Courts in the federal system.

o   They can be overruled by any higher appellate court—either a Circuit Court of Appeals of the Supreme Court.

Ø  A Circuit Court of Appeal’s holding will trump all lower court holdings within its jurisdiction, but will represent only persuasive authority to courts outside of its jurisdiction.

Ø  The Supreme Court’s holdings are the strongest and trump all conflicting holdings by lowers courts as well as conflicting interpretations by the other two branches.

o   In matters of constitutional interpretation, Supreme Court holdings are rock solid because they can only be superseded by a constitutional amendment or a future Supreme Court decision.

o   In matters of statutory interpretation, the Supreme Court’s holdings are equally binding, but Congress can always supersede the Court’s interpretation by changing the text of the statute in question.


And that’s it for the hierarchy of judicial opinions.

Now, I’m going to run through the hierarchy of blackletter sources of primary legal authority and we’re pretty much done.



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© 2012 David Alan Jordan. All rights reserved.