Binding Case Law is Judge-Made Law that Inferior Courts Must Follow

As discussed in the video below, case law (often spelled caselaw) is one source of law in the United States.  Case law is sometimes called judge-made law.  In the United States, lower courts must follow precedent of higher appellate level courts in the same jurisdiction.  The decisions of the appellate level courts are binding case law – – judge-made law – – that inferior courts must follow.

Remember, to bind is to tie.  When we say someone’s ‘hands are tied’, we mean they have no choice.  Judges are bound – – required – – to adhere to the law established by these appellate courts.


Binding Case Law in the Federal and State Courts

In the federal court system, trial level courts are called United States District Courts.  The District Courts must follow precedent established by the intermediate appellate courts in their jurisdiction.  For example, New York is in the Second Circuit.  As a result, New York federal courts must follow precedent established by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

The same principle applies in state court systems.  New Jersey trial level courts must follow precedent established by appellate courts in New Jersey.

Development of Binding Case Law: Example

Let’s say a statute in New Jersey prohibits anyone from operating a vehicle while intoxicated.  But the statute does not define “vehicle.”  Does this mean that a person violates the law if he rides a bicycle or rides in a horse-drawn wagon while intoxicated?

In this type of situation, judges will have to define “vehicle” because the term is not defined in the statute.  Common law principles provide that if New Jersey’s Supreme Court holds that a vehicle is ‘any form of transportation that relies on power from a mechanical engine’, then New Jersey judges in all subsequent cases should rule that bicycles and wagons are not vehicles for purposes of the statute because bicycles and horses do not have engines.  New Jersey’s lower courts must follow precedent established by the New Jersey Supreme Court.  The courts do not have discretion to ignore their Supreme Court’s definition of “vehicle”.

Not All Precedent is Binding Case Law

Not all case law is binding.  Within any jurisdiction, the decision of one trial court is not binding on other trial courts.  Also, decisions in one jurisdiction are not binding on courts in another jurisdiction.

For example, a New Jersey trial level court does not need to follow precedent from another trial-level court in New Jersey.  Nor does a New Jersey trial level court need to follow precedent from a court in another state.