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This guide provides you the context and foundation necessary to complete your NC specific legal research, whether it be common law, statutory code, administrative regulations, practical forms, secondary sources, journals, or municipal ordinances.
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Though the basic skills for legal research are broadly applied in the same way, each jurisdiction, or state, has its own quirks as to the rules of law and structure of information.  Because of these nuances in jurisdictional research, researchers need specialized knowledge and skills before beginning their research.  This Libguide was designed to provide you the context and foundation necessary to complete your North Carolina specific legal research, whether it be common law, statutory code, administrative regulations, practical forms, secondary sources, journals, or municipal ordinances.  



  1. What are the different types of authority in legal research?
  • Primary authority - "The Law."  This authority is created by the courts, such as the North Carolina Supreme Court, or legislative bodies, such as the North Carolina General Assembly.  Primary authority can be either mandatory or persuasive
    • Primary, Mandatory Authority - If authority is primary authority, it is because of the issuing source of law, such that if the law was issued within the jurisdiction where the question arose, then it is the law that must be applied.
    • Primary, Persuasive Authority - This type of authority is issued by legislatures, courts, or administrative agencies from other jurisdictions, such as common law out of another state, or another state's constitution.
  • Secondary Authority - This authority is information about "the law," and is typically written by legal scholars or practitioners.  These types of sources, such as journals, may describe or explain the law, but it is not the law in and of itself.


Mandatory Authority Persuasive Authority
Primary Authority

North Carolina Constitution

North Carolina General Statutes

North Carolina Supreme Court Decisions

North Carolina Administrative Code

Florida City Ordinances

Virginia Constitution

South Carolina Code of Laws

Georgia Supreme Court Decisions

Secondary Authority Never Mandatory Authority Journal Articles

2. How are the courts structured in North Carolina?

  • North Carolina has four distinct courts at the state level. According to the North Carolina Administrative Office of Courts, "all felony criminal cases, civil cases involving more than $10,000 and misdemeanor and infraction appeals from District Court are tried in Superior Court."  Additionally, in Superior Court, "a jury of 12 hears the criminal cases.  In civil cases, juries are often waived."  North Carolina divides Superior Courts into 8 divisions and 46 districts across the state.  Superior Court judges rotate between the districts every 6 months, but are required to stay within their district.  This system of rotating Superior Court judges was established to prevent favoritism that may arise from having a permanent, full-time judge in one district.
  • District Courts, or trial courts, can be divided into 4 categories within each county: civil, criminal, juvenile and magistrate.  Not only do District Courts sit within the county seat of each county, but may also sit in other cities so long as it has been specifically authorized by the General Assembly.  District Court cases include the following: divorce actions, custody, child support, cases involving less than $10,00, criminal cases involving misdemeanors and infractions.  Criminal cases held in District Court do not have a jury and are considered bench trials, in which a judge hears and rules on the case.  Additionally, according to, the District Court hears cases involving juveniles "under the age of 16 who are delinquent and children under the age of 18 who are undisciplined, dependent, neglected, or abused."  And lastly, magistrates "accept guilty pleas for minor misdemeanors, accept guilty pleas for traffic violations, accept waivers of trial for worthless-check cases, and are authorized to try small claims involving up to $5,000 including landlord eviction cases." (
  • The North Carolina Court of Appeals is this state's only intermediate appellate court. This court has 15 judges that sit in rotating panels of 3and decide only questions of law on every case appealed from the Superior and District courts, except death penalty cases. For a case to be sent to the North Carolina Supreme Court, either there was a dissenting opinion in the Court of Appeals, or it is accepted by the Supreme Court for review through petition.  
  • The North Carolina Supreme Court is the highest court in the state.  Once a case reaches the North Carolina Supreme Court, no further appeal in the state is allowed.  This court includes a chief justice and 6 associate justices who sit together as a full panel in the state capital, Raleigh.  There is no jury at the Supreme Court level, and the court does not make a determination of any facts.  This court solely considers errors in legal procedures or judicial interpretations of the law.  

3. How do I get started with my research?

  • Step 1: Gather facts, identify the legal issues, determine the jurisdiction and generate a list of search terms. Plan your research.  Which sources will you use, in what order, and in what format?  
  • Step 3: Find relevant statutes or constitutional provisions by searching for your research terms in statutory code indexes (either in print or online) or by full-text searching a statutory code database.  Read the relevant sections of statutes or constitutional provisions and begin thinking about how they apply to your research issue.  HINT: Annotated statutory codes often provide useful references to additional sources of secondary and primary law; particularly cases. You may also want to start with the North Carolina Constitution and Statutes & Legislative History tabs to organize your statutory research.
  • Step 4: Find relevant case law by using print digests (an arrangment of case law by subject for each jurisdiction) or online case-finding tools. Consider how the cases might clarify or complicate the law as it applies to your legal issues.  The North Carolina Courts and Case Law tab would be a fantastic starting point for finding and using online and print resources to conduct case law research.
  • Step 5: Find relevant administrative rules or decisions.  This is best done by browsing the annotations from a statutory code, or by using our specialized tab, Administrative Law, that points you directly to the administrative resources for North Carolina.
  • Step 6: Update the primary law you have located by using a citator, such as Shepard's on LexisNexis or KeyCite on Westlaw to ensure that the law you located has not been repealed, overruled, modified, or otherwise changed.  The citing sources from the citators will also suggest how your case has been interpreted by subsequent authorities. In order to decide how to cite to the sources you have located, we have compiled helpful citation materials located under the Citing Legal Materials tab.
  • Step 7: If you have followed the research process set out above, you will know that it's time to stop researching when you see the same authorities repeatedly cited throughout your research and find no apparent gaps in your analysis.

*The above Step-By-Step approach is based loosely on Figure 2-1. Overview of the Basic Legal Research Process by Scott Childs as published in North Carolina Legal Research (Carolina Academic Press, 2010).

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