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Copy of Reading US Cases 6.2: Relying on & Distinguishing Cases

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  • Learn how US attorneys and courts select cases to rely on in a litigation
  • Understand the legal English vocabulary associated with cases that courts must rely on, may rely on, and should not rely on.


  • Read the explanation below and watch the video on binding and non-binding precedent.
  • Answer the questions that follow to assess your understanding.

Cases Courts Must Follow, Should Follow, and Should Not Follow

You learned that US lawyers and judges think in terms of cases. And in your previous lesson you saw how writers can use case introduction signals to tell the reader why they are citing to a case. For example, writers use See and See e.g.,  to signal readers that the cases support a proposition and but see or c.f., could indicate cases that provide contrary authority.

Attorneys will always try to cite to law from cases that courts must follow. Case law that judges must follow is called binding precedent or controlling precedent.

As a general rule, cases with similar facts should have similar results.  If an appellate level court decides an issue in one case based on certain facts, an inferior court in the same jurisdiction must reach the same decision if later confronted with a case presenting similar facts. For example, precedent created by a California appellate court will bind a California trial court.

Not all precedent is binding.  Non-binding precedent refers to a prior court’s decision that a court in a later case is free to reject or to accept.  

A decision by a court in another state is non-binding precedent because courts cannot bind courts in other jurisdictions.  For example, a New York court is free to reject precedent from a California court.  Also, the decision of one trial level court in any jurisdiction cannot bind another trial level court in the same jurisdiction, nor can it bind an appellate court.

However, even if a case is not binding, it may still be persuasive. Persuasive authority refers to law that does not control the court, but a court may choose to follow it.

Attorneys also try to find cases that are “on-point”. A case is on-point if it presents similar facts to the case at hand. If a case presents facts similar to the facts of a prior case,  we expect the case to have a similar outcome.

Attorneys and law students in the United States must develop an ability to distinguish cases. To distinguish a case means to show that the facts of one case are dissimilar to the facts of another case and, therefore, the outcome of the cases should be different. A case that is distinguishable is not on-point. Attorneys in a litigation may emphasize that a case is distinguishable and irrelevant by describing it as “inapposite.” 

In a US litigation, attorneys always look for the best cases to cite for their clients. Ideally, they want on-point appellate cases from the same jurisdiction as their case. An appellate-level case that is on-point in a US litigation should control the outcome of the dispute. If the attorney cannot find binding authority, they will look for persuasive authority – – cases that are on-point and may convince the judge to reach a favorable decision even if they are not controlling.

Below is a video discussing binding precedent.