Primary and secondary authorities, as well as mandatory and persuasive authorities, are concepts in legal research that help distinguish the type and influence of legal sources.
Primary authorities are the actual laws. These are sources that establish the law and include constitutions, statutes, administrative regulations, and court decisions. They can be further divided into controlling (or binding) and persuasive authority.
- Mandatory Authority: These are primary authorities that a court must follow when deciding a case. This includes laws from higher courts within the same jurisdiction, statutes that directly govern the issues at hand, etc. For example, a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court is mandatory authority for all lower federal and state courts because it is controlling. The Constitution, which contains the Supremacy Clause (Article VI, Clause 2), is the ultimate controlling authority. The Supremacy Clause establishes the Constitution, federal statutes, and U.S. treaties as “the supreme law of the land.”
- Persuasive Authority: These are primary authorities that a court may consider but is not obliged to follow. This includes laws from other jurisdictions, decisions from lower courts, or decisions from courts at the same level. They are used to guide the court in the absence of controlling authority or when an attorney tries to convince the court to rule in a new direction.
Secondary authorities are explanations or commentaries about the law. They include legal encyclopedias, textbooks, law review articles, legal dictionaries, and treatises. They are not the law themselves but help explain or analyze it. Secondary authorities are always considered persuasive rather than controlling. They can assist in understanding a complex area of law, offer interpretations of primary authority, and sometimes be used to persuade a court, particularly when there is a lack of applicable primary authority. However, they are not binding on the court.
In Casey v. Beeker, Ala. Supreme Court, Chief Justice Tom Parker concurring specially writes,
I. Legal authorities in general
“In each case, [a court] must support its action by reciting legal rules that mesh adequately with the existing order.” Reed Dickerson, The Interpretation and Application of Statutes 14 (1975). Consequently, attorneys arguing before a court present legal rules that favor their respective clients’ positions, in support of which they will find it necessary to provide legal authority. In this role, attorneys should aspire to “recognize the existence of pertinent legal authorities.” Comment to Rule 3.3, “Misleading Legal Argument,” Ala. R. Prof. Cond.1 Particularly in cases in which this Court grants oral argument, it is typical for there to be no statute or controlling precedent that squares neatly with the facts and issues of the case at hand. When faced with this problem, attorneys must apply legal reasoning to information from other sources. To do so effectively, attorneys must recognize the breadth of potential sources, as well as their usefulness for persuasion. In almost every instance, there will be some legal authority that sheds light on the issue before the Court.
Every legal authority has two characteristics that determine its role in constructing an argument: type and weight. There are two types of legal authority: primary and secondary. In general, primary authority is law and official interpretations of it, for example, constitutions, statutes, local ordinances, executive orders, administrative regulations, court rules, and judicial decisions. Primary authority includes all official pronouncements of a governing body or individual that enact, interpret, or apply a law or legal principle. All primary authorities purport to be binding on someone or did at one time.2 All authorities that are not primary are secondary authorities, that is, unofficial commentary on the law. For example, good attorneys are familiar with their jurisdiction’s leading treatises and periodicals pertaining to their area of practice. Other secondary sources, such as practice manuals and desk books, legal dictionaries and encyclopedias, continuing-legal-education materials, and Internet sources can inform attorneys’ decisions of how to advise a client or build an argument.
Additionally, every authority has one of two weights: mandatory or persuasive. Mandatory authority is authority that a court must follow. Persuasive authority is authority that a court need not follow but that may be used to persuade the court. Only primary authorities can be mandatory, and primary authorities that are not mandatory are persuasive. All secondary authorities are persuasive authorities. Further, the weight of mandatory authorities does not vary: a mandatory authority must be followed. By contrast, some persuasive authorities are more persuasive than others. How persuasive such an authority is depends on many factors, such as the relevance of the commentary, the expertise of the author, and the age of the source. Particularly with respect to persuasive primary authority (e.g., nonbinding judicial statements), an authority’s persuasive value is impacted by the relative positions, within the judicial hierarchy or other governmental structure, of the author and the decision-maker being persuaded.
Many attorneys seem to have little difficulty ascertaining the weight of primary authority. That is good because legal arguments must cite applicable law, and legal conclusions must follow from law and its principles. Consequently, no argument should rest solely on persuasive authority if mandatory authority exists. Put another way, attorneys must acknowledge mandatory authorities, even if persuasive authorities better support their arguments. Further, attorneys cannot depend solely on secondary authority if there is primary authority available.
Some attorneys, however, have the opposite habit: They rely on primary authority to the near-total exclusion of secondary authority. Presumably, this habit has been fostered by the case method of legal education, which has held ascendancy in law schools across the nation for many decades, since shortly after Harvard Law School Dean Christopher Columbus Langdell introduced it in the latter half of the 19th century. See Marie Summerlin Hamm et al., The Rubric Meets the Road in Law Schools: Program Assessment of Student Learning Outcomes as a Fundamental Way for Law Schools to Improve and Fulfill their Respective Missions, 95 U. Det. Mercy L. Rev. 343, 354-57 (2018); David D. Garner, The Continuing Vitality of the Case Method in the Twenty-First Century, 2000 BYU Educ. & L.J. 307, 316-23 (2000); W. Burlette Carter, Reconstructing Langdell, 32 Ga. L. Rev. 1, 48-53 (1997) (discussing Langdell’s de-emphasis of secondary sources in legal education). As a result of Langdell’s influence, legal education places heavy emphasis on distilling and synthesizing rules announced in judicial opinions. Law students may receive an introduction to secondary sources in a first-year legal-research course, but they are rarely called upon to use them in any other context. This case-focused approach has some benefits, such as teaching students to “think like lawyers,” see James R. Maxeiner, Educating Lawyers Now and Then: Two Carnegie Critiques of the Common Law and the Case Method, 35 Int’l J. Legal Info. 1, 1 (2007), but it also conditions them to overlook — and undervalue — the wealth of information that experts have already compiled and condensed to aid understanding and guide research. In addition, the rise of electronic legal-research tools, with their increasingly advanced search capabilities and (more recently) artificial intelligence, has diminished the perceived value of secondary sources, particularly as aids in finding primary authority. It is easy to be lulled into complacency by the power of those tools and forget that the “universal search box” does not have access to the universe of legal information. No single method, industry practice, or tool defines the outer limit of the source types that may inform attorneys’ arguments and help them fulfill their obligations of effective advocacy and candor to the court. Although attorneys are not expected to digest all possible sources that may comment on a given issue, they would do well to draw on the wide variety of credible authorities available to them — especially when arguing appeals.
With this context in mind, I return to the legal issue at hand.
II. Legal authorities on using definitions across word forms
A. Primary sources
An abundance of judicial decisions supports the Court’s holding that “the term deliberate’ should be defined based on the statutory definition of deliberation’ found in the [Open Meetings] Act.” _ So. 3d at _. For example, this Court’s handling of the word “deliberate” in Swindle v. Remington, 291 So. 3d 439 (Ala. 2019), is fully consistent with today’s holding. Another supporting decision the Court cites is State v. Schmid, 859 N.W.2d 816 (Minn. 2015), in which the defendant had been convicted under a Minnesota law that “state[d] that a person may not `take’ deer without a license.” Id. at 817. The state’s fish and game laws defined the noun “taking” but not the verb “take.” Id. at 820. The court construed “take” according to the definition of “taking”:
‘Taking,’ as defined [by the statute], can be used as a verb, noun, or adjective. When ‘taking’ is used as a verb it has the same underlying definition as the root verb taking’ is used as a gerund or adjective, the difference is not definitional, but syntactical. The verb form is an action performed by a subject, modifiable by adverbs, while the noun form identifies the action as the object of a verb, modifiable by adjectives. Thus, when ‘taking’ are used in the same context, they have the same basic definition. They are merely different syntactical forms of the same word.” Id. at 820-21 (citations omitted).
Swindle and Schmid are far from the only cases that support the Court’s application of a definition of a noun to its verb form. In an opinion construing Texas’s Open Meetings Act, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals responded skeptically to the State’s argument that the statutory verb ‘meeting’ had a different meaning from the defined noun ‘meeting.’ Texas v. Doyal, 589 S.W.3d 136, 143 n.25 (Tex. Crim. App. 2019) (“It could be argued that the verb ‘meeting’ — so that the noun definition would inform the meaning of the verb.”). Additionally, decisions of the United States Supreme Court and the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit indicate that it is appropriate to impute the same essential meaning to different forms of the same word or phrase that occur in the same legislation. See, e.g., Astrue v. Ratliff, 560 U.S. 586, 592 (2010) (declining to interpret the noun ‘award’ as having a different meaning from the verb ‘award’ because “[t]he transitive verb ‘award’ has a settled meaning in the litigation context”); Reves v. Ernst & Young, 507 U.S. 170, 178 (1993) (“We conclude . . . that as both a noun and a verb in this subsection ‘conduct’ requires an element of direction.”); Janus Capital Grp., Inc. v. First Derivative Traders, 564 U.S. 135, 142 (2011) (explaining that pairing the verb ‘make’ with a noun results in a phrase approximately equivalent in meaning to the verb form of the noun: “To make any . . . statement, ‘is thus the approximate equivalent of to state.'”); United States v. Caniff, 955 F.3d 1183, 1189 (11th Cir. 2020) (concluding that the phrase “to make any notice’ simply means to notify'”).
Similarly, the courts of this State have concluded that the meaning of a noun informs the meaning of its verb form, and vice versa. See, e.g., Randolph v. Yellowstone Kit, 83 Ala. 471, 472, 3 So. 706, 707 (1888) (inferring meaning of noun ‘peddler’ from verb ‘peddle’); Bank of Florala v. Smith, 11 Ala. App. 358, 359, 66 So. 832, 832 (1914) (“[T]he word `mortgage,’ when employed without qualification in [a conveyance], whether as a verb or as a noun . . ., . . . is construed to mean and accomplish what formal terms creating a mortgage would have accomplished . . . .” (emphasis added)).
B. Secondary sources
Further support for the Court’s use of the definition of ‘deliberation’ across word forms exists in secondary authorities regarding principles of statutory interpretation. For example, a legislature communicates ‘according to accepted standards of communication’ existing at the time of the enactment. Dickerson, supra, at 11, 273. Thus, courts presume that the ‘drafters [of legislation] . . . are . . . grammatical in their compositions.’ Antonin Scalia & Bryan A. Garner, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts 140 (2012). That is, ordinarily, “[w]ords are to be given the meaning that proper grammar and usage would assign them.” Scalia & Garner, supra, at 140; see Nielsen v. Preap, _ U.S. , , 139 S. Ct. 954, 965 (2019) (applying this principle and holding “that the scope of `the alien’ is fixed by the predicate offenses identified in [the preceding] subparagraphs”).
One remarkable characteristic of English grammar and usage is that the same word can often function as many different parts of speech. See Bryan Garner, Garner’s Modern English Usage 416 (4th ed. 2016) (‘Renaissance rhetoricians called [this characteristic] enallage . . ., and some modern grammarians call it transfer: the ability of a word to shift from one grammatical function to another.’). A word that is normally a noun may serve as an adjective and vice versa. With only a slight change of spelling and sentence structure, a noun becomes a verb. Many such ‘functional shifts,’ also called ‘semantic shifts,’ are possible and normally acceptable. See Id. at 416-18. Pertinently here, a noun may be used as a verb. Although stylistically legal-writing experts tend to frown on such ‘nominalization’ that creates a ‘buried verb’ or ‘zombie noun,’ their criticism inherently recognizes that the two forms are functionally interchangeable in relation to meaning. See Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Modern American Usage 120 (3d. ed. 2009); Modern English Usage, supra, at 983; Jason Dykstra, To Verb or Not to Verb, 56 Advocate 49 (2013); Bryan A. Garner, Legal Writing in Plain English 38-39 (2001). This interchangeability has given rise to what one scholar has labeled the ‘Consistency Principle’: ‘When a word is used as both a noun and a verb in a single statutory statement, that word should be construed similarly in each instance.’ Alani Golanski, Linguistics in Law, 66 Alb. L. Rev. 61, 94 (2002).
From this brief survey, it is evident that a plethora of legal authorities, both primary and secondary, support the Court’s use of the statutory definition of the noun ‘deliberation’ to understand the meaning of its verb form ‘deliberate.’ More importantly, this case illustrates the danger of attorneys assuming an overly restrictive understanding of the scope of legal authority. Attorneys throughout the State would do well to both recognize and employ the full range of sources at their disposal under the rubric of ‘legal authority.'”
Therefore, the relationship between these concepts is that primary authority can be either mandatory or persuasive, while secondary authority, though it can be persuasive, is never mandatory. Legal practitioners must effectively navigate these categories to construct their legal arguments and interpret the law accurately.
- I do not suggest that attorneys behave unethically by failing to identify or acknowledge noncontrolling authorities, but only that attorneys do have a duty to ensure the accuracy of any representation that no legal authority exists that supports a proposition that favors the opponent. It is one thing not to disclose noncontrolling authority that supports one’s opponent; it is quite another to affirmatively state that such authority does not exist. ↩
- Plurality opinions, concurring opinions, dissenting opinions, and dicta, though generally nonbinding in the sense that they do not contain a court’s holdings, are primary authority because they are parts of official, binding pronouncements. Unlike holdings in majority opinions, however, they are persuasive rather than mandatory.[7. See infra. ↩