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Legal Research

Fundamentals of Legal Research

Is it a trial court decision or an appellate court opinion?

Trial Courts do not issue Opinions

Trial courts issue orders (granting a divorce, sentencing a defendant to jail, etc.), not opinions with precedential value. Traditionally the only way to get state trial court opinions was to go to the courthouse but now some are available online.

Appellate Opinions (intermediate)

Trial court decisions are reviewed by intermediate appellate courts (Courts of Appeal or Circuit Courts) which issue opinions that are precedent for trial courts. The party who loses at the trial level may appeal the outcome by arguing that the trial court erred on an issue of law.

Examples:
  • Court applied the wrong standard
  • Court allowed inadmissible evidence
  • Court excluded admissible evidence
The appellate court decides the issue and writes an opinion explaining the reasoning for the decision. The losing party may appeal to the Supreme Court.
 
Remember: Maine has no intermediate appellate state court!
 

Supreme Court Opinions

Intermediate appellate decisions may be reviewed by a Supreme Court which issues opinions that are precedent for all lower courts (appellate and trial courts). The party who loses at the appellate level can appeal to the Supreme Court arguing that the court made a mistake on an issue of law. If the Supreme Court agrees to hear the case, it decides the issue and writes an opinion explaining the reasoning for the decision. 

Finding opinions

Court opinions are available from some court websites, from PACER (public access to court records), and from many free and paid databases, and in print.