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Legal Methods

The basic techniques of legal analysis, writing and research.

Where to Begin Research Project

There are two preliminary steps to take:

  1. Define the scope of your project - evaluate the type of work product you are expected to produce and the amount of time you have.
  2. Generate search terms - construct a random list of words that seem relevant to the issue; the parties involved in the problem and relationships to each other, the places and things involved in the problem, the potential claims and defenses that could be raised, and the relief sought by the complaining party.

Primary Mandatory Authority -- if you have background on your topic -- seek out research notes in Constitutions, Court Opinions, Statutes, and Regulations.

Secondary Authority -- helps generate search terms and what authority you should research -- provide commentary on and analysis of the law.

Primary Persuasive Authority -- rarely used to start research projects.

Types of Authority


Mandatory (Binding)

  • Constitutional provisions, statutes, and regulations in force within a jurisdiction are mandatory authority for courts within the same jurisdiction.
  • Decisions from higher courts within a jurisdiction are mandatory authority for lower courts within the same jurisdiction.

Persuasive (Nonbinding)

  • Decisions from courts within one jurisdiction are persuasive authority for courts within another jurisdiction.
  • Decisions from lower courts within a jurisdiction are persuasive authority for higher courts within the same jurisdiction.


Mandatory (Binding)

  • Secondary authority is not mandatory authority.

Persuasive (Nonbinding)

  • Secondary authority is persuasive authority.

Legal System - Federal

Legal System - State

The National Center for State Courts (NCSC) acts as a non-profit provider of many services to the courts including: research studies, consulting, a variety of educational programs, an extensive web database of information on court administration, the largest library of materials on court administration in the world, and continued assistance in the improvement of inter-branch relations through its lobbying and advocacy services.

The State Court Web Sites page of the NCSC provides judicial branch links for each state, focusing on the administrative office of the courts, the court of last resort, any intermediate appellate courts, and each trial court level.


The Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania (AOPC)

Pennsylvania District Courts

Western District Middle District Eastern District

Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Bedford, Blair, Butler, Cambria, Cameron, Clarion, Clearfield, Crawford, Elk, Erie, Fayette, Forest, Greene, Indiana, Jefferson, Lawrence, McKean, Mercer, Potter, Somerset, Venango, Warren, Washington, Westmoreland

Adams, Berks, Bradford, Centre, Clinton, Columbia, Cumberland, Dauphin, Franklin, Fulton, Huntingdon, Juniata, Lackawanna, Lancaster, Lebanon, Luzerne, Lycoming, Mifflin, Montour, Northumberland, Perry, Schuylkill, Snyder, Sullivan, Susquehanna, Tioga, Union, Wyoming, York

Bucks, Carbon, Chester, Delaware, Lehigh, Monroe, Montgomery, Northampton, Philadelphia, Pike, Wayne

What's the Difference Between State and Federal Courts?

Pennsylvania state courts decide cases involving child custody matters, divorce, most criminal cases, real estate issues, juvenile issues, contract disputes, traffic violations, personal injury issues, and inheritance matters, to name a few. These courts can also hear cases that are appeals from state or local agencies. For example, an appeal from a local zoning decision would normally go to the local Common Pleas Court.

But, there are certain categories of legal disputes that are resolved in federal courts. Federal courts may hear cases that involve the U.S. Constitution, federal law, the United States government, or controversies between states or between the U.S. government and foreign governments. In addition, they may hear “diversity of citizenship” cases – cases between citizens of different states (for example, between a citizen of Pennsylvania and a citizen of New York), or between a citizen of a state and a non-U.S. citizen. Note that diversity of citizenship cases must involve claims that exceed $75,000.

The federal courts also hear appeals from federal agencies. For example, an appeal from a denial of social security benefits by the Social Security Administration, would go to the federal courts, once all administrative appeals are finished.

Federal district courts in Pennsylvania are: the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, and the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.

Legal Citation