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LRAC Legal Research Class Site

Arizona Court Structure

In the United States, the federal and state court systems are comprised of trial courtsintermediate courts of appeal, and a supreme court of last resort.  

What is an Opinion?

An opinion (aka decision or case) is an appellate court ruling which applies principles from previously decided cases (precedent) to resolve a legal issue.

Court Levels

There are generally three levels of a U.S. court system:

  1. Trial court
  2. Court of appeals
  3. Supreme court

Issues of Fact v. Issues of Law

On the trial level, there are two types of findings. 

Issues of fact

  • Facts are decided by a factfinder (jury or judge)
  • Factual findings will not be overturned on appeal unless “manifestly unfair,” the result of prejudice, etc…

Examples:

  • Did the defendant know how to drive a stick shift car? 
  • Did the defendant trip a horse or tip a cow?
  • Was the defendant speeding? 

Issues of law

  • Legal issues are decided by a judge
  • Legal rulings, not factual findings, are the subject of appeals

Examples: 

  • Was the defendant in actual physical control of the car if she had the keys in the ignition, but wasn't driving?
  • Is the 5 year old witness competent to testify?
  • Is the driver’s criminal record admissible?
  • Is hearsay admissible to prove intent?

What is an Opinion Continued?

Trial Court Orders

Trial courts issue orders to resolve legal issues by, for example, granting a divorce, sentencing a defendant to jail, or awarding a plaintiff damages. These orders have no precedential value. States do not do a good job of making these orders available electronically on their docket websites, but now some are available on Westlaw and Lexis.

Pima County Example of a Trial Court Order

Court of Appeals Opinions

Appellate opinions are what you read in your casebooks! Trial court decisions are reviewed by intermediate appellate courts (Court of Appeals) which issue opinions that are precedent for trial courts. A party who is unhappy with a trial outcome can appeal by arguing that the trial court erred on an issue of law.

Examples:

  • Trial court applied the wrong standard
  • Trial court allowed inadmissible evidence
  • Trial court excluded admissible evidence

The Court of Appeals decides the issue and writes an opinion explaining the reasoning for the decision. The losing party may appeal to the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Opinions

The party who loses at the Court of Appeals 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. These opinions are precedent for both the Court of Appeals and trial courts.