Mandatory v. Persuasive Authority
Federal courts must follow primary mandatory authority.
Secondary sources are the encyclopedias, treatises, ALR annotations, journal articles, and restatements that you consult to better understand the law and to find primary authority. Secondary sources are always persuasive.
Primary authority is the federal law: constitutions, statutes, administrative regulations, and court decisions. Primary authority may be mandatory or persuasive, depending upon two factors: jurisdiction and hierarchy of authority.
A federal court will apply the law of its jurisdiction. For example, a decision from a U.S. District Court in Georgia is primary authority because it is case law. However, it is not binding/mandatory on a U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina. It is only persuasive. A South Carolina court may be persuaded by a Georgia decision, but it is not required to follow precedent from another jurisdiction.
Hierarchy of Authority
A South Carolina federal district court must only follow precedent from a higher court covering its jurisdiction. For example, a U.S. District of South Carolina judge is not required to follow a previous District of South Carolina case because that is not from a higher court. Similarly, federal district court judges are only required to follow the decisions of the appellate courts covering their jurisdictions, which for South Carolina would be the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court. That same District of South Carolina judge would not be bound by a U.S. Court of Appeals decision from another circuit because, even though it is a higher court, it is from another jurisdiction.
The same rules apply across U.S. Courts of Appeals. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals would not be required to follow a decision from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals because it is both a different jurisdiction and court of the same level. However, both the Fourth and Seventh Circuits would be bound by a U.S. Supreme Court decision.
|The Federal Court System|
United States Supreme Court
Mandatory for all courts on issues of federal law.
United States Courts of Appeals
Mandatory for district courts in that circuit only.
United States District Courts
At least one in each state.
You may visit the United States Courts website to read more about the role and structure of the federal courts.
Weight of authority is important when researching a federal issue. If the U.S. Supreme Court or the Court of Appeals in your circuit (e.g., Fourth), has ruled on a point of law, that opinion is mandatory authority. However, if you can distinguish the facts in the controlling case from the facts in your client's case, you might persuade the court to follow the reasoning of a lower court or a court from another jurisdiction that applied the same law to facts more similar to yours.
If the U.S. Supreme Court or Court of Appeals in your federal circuit have not ruled on a particular legal issue, all cases on point (applying the applicable law to similar facts) are important, because they could have value as persuasive authority.
When researching cases on an issue of federal law, ask yourself the following questions included in the pyramid below, from top to bottom: