To understand how to make legal arguments, it is important to have an understanding of our court system. This section focuses on the Federal Court system. Every state has its own state court system, which is separate from the federal system.

1. The Federal Court System

The federal court system is not separated by state, but rather by “districts” and “circuits.” A federal suit begins in a United States District Court. The District Court is the trial court of the federal system. In total there are 94 U.S. District Courts. Some states, such as Alaska, only have one district. Others have several. New York, for example, is composed of four districts: the Northern, Western, Eastern, and Southern Districts. District Courts all have the name of a state in them, like the “Eastern District of New York.”

Someone who loses in the District Court has a legal right to appeal to the United States Circuit Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals is divided into regions called “circuits.” There are 11 circuits in the United States that have number names. Washington, D.C. is just known as the “D.C. Circuit” and does not have a number. Each Circuit Court contains a number of district courts. For instance, the “First Circuit” includes all the districts in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Puerto Rico.

Someone who loses in the Court of Appeals can ask for review by the United States Supreme Court. This is called “petitioning for certiorari.” Generally, the Supreme Court can decide which decisions it wishes to review, called “granting cert.” and can refuse to review the others, called “denying cert.”

2. How Judges Interpret Laws on the Basis of Precedent

Most of the claims we have talked about in this book are based on one of the Constitutional Amendments, which are reprinted in Appendix E at the back of this book. Amendments are very short and they are written in very broad and general terms. Courts decide what these general terms mean when they hear specific lawsuits or “cases.” For instance, you probably already know that the Eighth Amendment prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.” However, there is no way to know from those four words exactly which kinds of punishments are allowed and which aren’t. For instance, you may think to yourself that that execution is very “cruel and unusual.” But, execution is legal in the United States. To understand how judges interpret “cruel and unusual punishment” you need to read cases in which other people, in the past, argued that one type of punishment or another was “cruel and unusual” and see how they turned out.

Each court decision is supposed to be based on an earlier decision, which is called “precedent.” To show that your constitutional rights have been violated, you point to good court decisions in earlier cases and describe how the facts in those cases are similar to the facts in your case. You should also show how the general principles of constitutional law presented in the earlier decisions apply to your situation.

Besides arguing from favorable precedent, you need to explain why bad court decisions which might appear to apply to your situation should not determine the decision in your case. Show how the facts in your case are different from the facts in the bad case. This is called “distinguishing” a case.

The most important precedent is a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. Every court is supposed to follow this precedent. The next best precedent is a decision of the appeals court for the circuit in which your district court is located. This is called “binding precedent” because it must be followed.

The third-best precedent is an earlier decision by the district court which is considering your suit. This may be by the judge who is in charge of your suit or by a different judge from the same court.

Some questions in your case may never have been decided by the Supreme Court, the Circuit Court, or your District Court. If this is the case, then you can point to decisions by U.S. Appeals Courts from other circuits or by other U.S. District Courts. Although a district court is not required to follow these kinds of precedents, it should consider them seriously. This is called “persuasive authority.”

One complication is that you should only cite cases which remain “good law.”  Good law means that a case has not been reversed on appeal, or overruled by a later case.  For example, in Chapter Three we wrote at length about Overton v. Bazzeta, 539 U.S. 126 (2003), a Supreme Court case about prisoners’ rights to visits.  Before the Supreme Court heard the case, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals heard the prison officials’ appeal from a district court decision finding that Michigan’s prison visit policy violated prisoners’ constitutional rights.  The Sixth Circuit decision is reported at  Overton v. Bazzeta, 286 F.3d 311 (6th Cir. 2002).  The Sixth Circuit agreed with the district court that the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights were being violated, and wrote a wonderful decision.  However, because the Supreme Court later granted cert and came to a different conclusion, you cannot rely on any of the parts of the (good) Sixth Circuit opinion that the Supreme Court reversed.

Order of Precedents:

Supreme Court (Strongest)

Appeals Court for your Circuit

District Court for your District

Another Appeals Court

Another District Court in your Circuit

Another District Court outside your Circuit. (Weakest, but still important)

Sometimes it is hard to tell, from reading a decision, whether the whole thing has been reversed or not.  Some part of a lower court decision can remain good law after an appeal.  If only one part of the case is appealed, while other claims are not, the portion of the lower court decision that was not appealed is still good law. You can cite it.  And of course, if a case is affirmed on appeal, meaning that the Appellate court agrees with what the district court said, the district court decision is still good law, and you can cite to it.  In that example, however, you may want to cite to the appellate decision instead, as an appellate decision is higher up in the order of precedent.

Let’s go back to the Overton v. Bazetta example.  In that case, plaintiffs argued before the district court that Michigan rules restricting visits violated their First and Eighth Amendment rights, as well as procedural due process.  They had a trial at the district court and won. The appellate court “affirmed” or agreed with that decision.  When the Supreme Court decided to hear the case it decided to review the First and Eighth Amendment claims.  It went on to reverse on those claims, holding that Michigan’s policies did not violate the First and Eighth Amendment.  So, the Supreme Court decision does not affect the lower courts’ procedural due process decision. That part of the Sixth Circuit opinion is still “good law.”

How do you find out if a case is still good law?  Most lawyers today do it using an internet legal research system.  In prison, you can do it using books called “Shepards.”  These books tell you whether any court has made a decision that affects a case that you want to rely on. They also list, to the exact page, every other court decision which mentions the decision you are checking.  To research federal cases, you need Shepards Federal Citations.  A booklet that comes with each set of citations explains in detail how to use them. It is very important for you to read that booklet and follow all of the directions.

When you use Shepard’s Citations, it is often called “shepardizing.” Shepardizing a decision is the only way you can make sure that decision has not been reversed of overruled. It also can help you find cases on your topic. Be sure to check the smaller paperback “advance sheets” which come out before each hardbound volume.

REMEMBER: It will not help your case to cite a decision that has been reversed on appeal!  Make sure to shepardize all cases you want to rely on.

3. Statutes

Federal courts use the same method to interpret laws passed by the U.S. Congress. These laws are called “statutes.” Judges interpret the words in these laws in court cases. This method also governs how judges apply the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which are made by the U.S. Supreme Court. Since statutes and rules are more specific than provisions in the Constitution, they leave less room for judicial interpretation.

4. Other Grounds for Court Decisions

Sometimes no precedent will be very close to your case, or you will find conflicting precedent from equally important courts. Other times there may be weak precedent which you will want to argue against. In these situations it helps to explain why a decision in your favor would be good precedent for future cases and would benefit society in general. This is called an argument based on “policy.”

You can refer to books and articles by legal scholars to back up your arguments. Sometimes when a judge writes an opinion to explain his decision, he will set forth his views about a whole area of law relevant to that decision. Although the judge’s general views do not count as precedent, you can quote his view in support of your arguments just as you would quote a “legal treatise” or an article in a “law review.” A “legal treatise” is a book about one area of the law and a “law review” is a magazine or journal that has essays about different parts of the law written by legal scholars.

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