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Circuit Riders: Basic Legal Research

A guide for non-law librarians

Legal Research Terms

annotation: a note, summary, or commentary on some section of a statute or regulation that is intended to explain or illustrate its meaning. An annotation serves as a brief summary of the law and the facts of a case and demonstrates how a particular law enacted by Congress or a state legislature is interpreted and applied. Annotations usually follow the text of the statute they interpret in annotated statutes.

federalism: a system of government in which authority is shared between national and state governments.

jurisdiction: a court's power to hear and decide a case or the power of a court over the nature of a case and the type of remedy demanded or the geographic territory within which a court may properly exercise its power.

mandatory authority: binding authority that a court must follow in deciding a legal issue. 

persuasive authority: non-binding authority that a court may follow if persuaded to do so.

precedent: rules from prior cases applied to the same legal issue in subsequent cases.

primary authority: the law, of which there are four primary sources - constitutions, statutes, regulations, and case law.

stare decisis: Latin for “Let the decision stand.”  Judges apply prior court rulings to cases with similar issues. See precedent.

separation of powers: a doctrine of constitutional law under which the three branches of government - executive, legislative, and judicial - are separate and individual but act in concert to govern.

secondary authority: commentary about or explanation of the law that does not come from one of the four sources of primary law.  Examples include law review articles, treatises, and legal encyclopedias.  Secondary authority is always persuasive. It is never mandatory.


act: a statutory provision passed by Congress or any state legislature.

annotated code: a code that contains the text of laws along with explanatory notes, research references, and summaries and citations of cases discussing them.

bill:  a legislative proposal for enactment of a law.

code: a compilation of laws arranged by subject.

citator: a book or online database that traces the history and subsequent treatment of statutes and cases.

codify: to arrange laws, generally by topic, into an ordered code.

conversion table: a table that provides codified title and sections for session laws (acts).

et seq.: an abbreviation for a Latin phrase meaning “and the following,” referring to a series of code sections beginning with the section listed.

index: an alphabetical listing of topics with cross references, which serves as an excellent tool for locating statutes by subject.

keyword search: a means of searching by entering relevant search terms into an electronic database.

model act: acts, such as the Model Penal Code that serve as guidelines for states to choose to adopt any or all of its provisions.

municipality: relating to a city, town, or local government entity.

official codes: codes that are published by the government or a commercial publisher via the authorization of the government.

ordinance: a law enacted by a city or county, often called municipal ordinances.     

pocket part: a paper insert to a hardbound volume of a code containing amendments and updated information.

popular name table: an index listing statutes by their popular name.

session law: a chronological compilation of laws in their enacted format prior to being compiled in codes (e.g., SC Acts & Joint Resolutions or United States Statutes at Large).

slip law: the printed pages of an individual law before it is published as a session law.

statute: a law passed by a legislative body (SC General Assembly, U.S. Congress).

table of contents: a listing of chapters and sections within a title of a code that allows the researcher to view an entire statutory scheme.

uniform law: laws proposed to promote clarity and stability among the states in critical areas of law.

unofficial codes: codes that are published without government authorization.

action: a civil or criminal proceeding initiated by a party in a federal, state, or local court.

appeal: the process by which a party or parties to a legal action seek review by a higher court of a trial or appellate court’s decision.

appellant: the person or entity who initiates an appeal.

case: a civil or criminal action as it proceeds through the federal, state or local court system.

civil: a non-criminal action involving the private rights and remedies of parties, e.g., breach of contract, probate, divorce, and negligence actions.

common law: law derived from court decisions rather than from statutes passed by legislatures.

concurring opinion: an opinion written by a judge or justice who agrees with the majority’s holding, but for different reasons.  These opinions have no precedential value, but may be considered persuasive authority.

court rules: court rules, such as the rules of civil and criminal procedure and evidence as well as local rules that govern practice and procedure in the various federal, state and local courts.

criminal case: an action brought by a local, state, or federal government to punish persons for offenses against the public.

decision: the actual legal outcome of a case as decided by the court, e.g., affirmed, reversed, remanded, etc.

defendant/respondent: the person who responds to the case or procedure in the trial court. In certain types of lawsuits, or on appeal, the defendant is called the Respondent.

dictum: a statement, analysis, or discussion in the court’s opinion that is irrelevant or unnecessary for the outcome of the case. Dicta (plural) has no precedential value.

dissenting opinion:  an opinion written by a judge or justice explaining why she does not agree with the majority opinion.  These opinions have no precedential value, but may be considered persuasive authority.

holding: that part of the written opinion that has precedential value and is considered primary authority because it is the ruling or decision of the court.

jurisdiction: the power of a court to exercise authority over persons and things in a particular geographic area as well as the power of a court to hear certain types of cases.

majority opinion: the official opinion of a court, which serves as precedent (binding authority) for other lower courts in its jurisdiction.

mandatory authority: a decision that is binding because it is from a higher court in the same jurisdiction or is a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court involving a federal issue or the U.S. Constitution.

opinion: the written explanation of a court’s decision in the case (lawyers often refer to it as a case).

party: a person or entity involved in a lawsuit (case) or appeal.

persuasive authority: a decision from another jurisdiction or an equal or lower court in the same jurisdiction or secondary authority.  Persuasive authority is not mandatory.

plaintiff/petitioner: the person or entity who initiates the case or procedure in the trial court.

precedent: a rule set by a prior court decision that forms the basis for future court decisions with similar facts and issues. The doctrine of precedent is based on the concept of stare decisis, which is Latin for “to stand by things decided.”

primary authority: a rule of law derived from one of the four primary sources of law: constitutions, statutes, regulations and cases.

reporters: a set of books in which judicial opinions are published in chronological order. Official reporters are published by or under the authority of a state or the federal government, e.g., the United States Reports and the South Carolina Reports.

secondary authority: resources that describe or interpret the law, such as legal treatises, law review articles, and restatements, that lawyers consult to understand the law or to persuade a court. Secondary authority is never binding.

codify: To arrange laws, generally by topic, into an ordered code. Federal and South Carolina administrative agency rules and regulations are codified, i.e., arranged by topic and agency and organized by titles and chapters, respectively. 

et seq.: An abbreviation for the Latin phrase meaning “and the following.” 

executive order: An order given by the President or a governor of a state to federal and state administrative agencies acting as heads of their respective executive branches.

proclamation: A formal public announcement from the President or a governor of a state.  

promulgate: To issue and put into effect. State and federal agencies promulgate rules and regulations.

rules & regulations: Terms used interchangeably to refer to laws originating from administrative agencies.

annotated regulation: a code that contains the text of regulations along with explanatory notes, research references, and summaries and citations of cases discussing them.

Legal Dictionaries & Glossaries

Online legal dictionaries


Print legal dictionaries available at USC Law Library