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Primary & Secondary Sources of Law

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  • 0:00 Laws In The United States
  • 0:42 Primary Sources Of Law
  • 2:52 Secondary Sources Of Law
  • 4:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Krcatovich

Erin teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in Political Science, Public Policy, and Public Administration and has a PhD in Political Science.

This lesson discusses primary and secondary sources of law as well as the role of both in legal research. Here, we will examine how to find and use these sources as students learning about the trial court process in the United States.

Laws in the United States

Imagine you're a law student trying to study for a big exam - where would you even begin to sort out the many complicated laws and cases that we have in the United States? There are many different laws and thousands of cases involving them. There are both civil laws and criminal laws, which can be different among the federal, state, and local governments nationwide. As a student, you need a way to get information in an organized, useful manner. This will help you study, and it will help you later when working as an attorney. For both law students and attorneys, there are many tools available to help sort out our complicated legal system. We separate these tools into two groups: primary sources and secondary sources.

Primary Sources of Law

A primary source of law are the texts of a law itself and all court cases related to it. A law specifies what a person can or cannot do, under what circumstances, and in what location. Some are crimes, such as murder, theft, or arson; these laws must include what punishment must be applied for someone who is caught breaking it. Others are civil statutes, such as the process of adoption of a child or the immigration process for a new citizen. When a person is accused of a crime or a violation of a civil statute, he or she may go before the court for a judge and jury to hear the case.

Laws are created by many different bodies; Congress writes new bills, which are passed into law by the president. A state has its own legislature, which creates statutes that are signed into law by the governor. Cities can create ordinances that apply to their geographic area, such as no parking zones on certain streets. There are state and federal agencies with the authority to create laws over their limited jurisdiction as well. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency is authorized by the President to define standards of clean air and water that companies must comply with when disposing of hazardous waste material.

Primary sources of law also include all court cases about an existing law. The Supreme Court, as the highest court in the United States, has the authority to rule on whether a law accurately follows the Constitution and all interpretations of it by the Supreme Court in earlier cases. Our laws in this country are built upon one another through the principle of stare decisis, where we apply previous court decisions (called precedents) to similar future cases. The goal of stare decisis is to keep the verdict consistent from one case to the next, if the circumstances are comparable.

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