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How To Read Cases In Law School

Each case or written opinion is comprised of different sections and components.

A well-written opinion usually begins by outlining the legal issue(s) followed by the background facts pertaining to the situation in controversy.  After these two sections comes the procedural posture of the case, which simply means the case’s history with regards to how the courts have ruled on the matter.  Then, the court delves into the “discussion” or legal analysis of the issues.  Last, there is a brief conclusion followed by the court’s ultimate ruling.

Well-written opinions will have headings for each different section.  Unfortunately, however, some cases are not structured as neatly and require the reader to delineate each section on his/her own.  Initially, this may not be as simple as it sounds but over time it becomes second nature.

Eventually, the reader will recognize where one section ends and the next begins.  For example, legal issue sentences usually begin with the word “whether.”  Thus, when the word “whether” appears, you should ask yourself if it is framing the legal issue for the opinion.  If so, you should mark it.  You should also realize that once the legal issue has been stated, a different section should follow.  Continue this practice until you have reached the end of the opinion.

Sections (usually in this order):

(1) Legal issue: usually begins with the word “whether” and is only a couple of sentences or a short paragraph

(2) Background facts: self-explanatory

(3) Procedural posture/history: how the case has progressed through the courts (i.e. how courts have ruled on the legal issues in the case)

(4) Discussion/legal analysis: where the court addresses the legal issue(s)

(5) Conclusion/ultimate ruling: is the case vacated, reversed, affirmed, or remanded

Found within the various sections are different parts or components of the opinion.  Generally, these are more difficult to identify.  As with the sections noted above, however, locating such components also becomes second nature over time.

The primary components of each case are:

(1) Legal issue (falls under both section and component)

(2) Rule: standards or principles established by the court

(3) Policy: the reason(s) underlying the court’s ruling

(4) Dictum: a statement, comment, or observation in a judicial opinion that is unnecessary to the decision in the case (USlegal.com)

(5) Holding/Ruling: the court’s “determination of a matter of law pivotal to its decision” (Black’s Law Dictionary)

(Note: I am collapsing the two into one component here.  One can argue that the “ruling” should be the final conclusion reached by the court, but I have found that the terms are used interchangeably at times so I have chosen to combine them.  Either way, if you understand one, you will understand both)

Not only is being able to identify each section and component of a case good for comprehension, but it is also key to getting through the Socratic method.  Usually, the professor’s initial Socratic questioning takes on a form similar to this: what are the facts of the case, what are the legal issues, what did the lower court hold, how did the court analyze the issue, what did the court hold.  If you locate each part prior to class, you are in a much better position to get through a round of Socratic questioning.

As noted above, the legal issue usually begins with the word “whether.”  It is basically what the whole case is about; it is the question the court is trying to answer.  Hopefully, this will not be too difficult to locate.

On the other hand, rules are not always that easy to spot.  Sometimes a rule is written down as clear as day, especially when the court begins the sentence with “the general rule is.”   This is not always the case though.

There will be rules that look like holdings and practically are.  Basically, you are looking for some sort of standard or principle that the court establishes in the opinion.  Sometimes the rule is in the form of a conclusive statement in the legal analysis section that lays out what a party can or cannot do.

If you are the type that does not mind writing in the margins of your book, bracket off the rule with a highlighter or non-black pen (makes it easier to see) and write the letter “R” next to it.

When it comes to policy, you want to focus on major reasons or concepts as to why a court would rule the way that it does.  For example, a court may decide to limit the personal injury liability of major utility companies because if they are amenable to lawsuits then prices for these utilities will increase, the companies will go out of business, or the amount of lawsuits will flood the court system.   As you can note, these are not pure legal reasons.  Instead, they are based more on a cause and effect rationale that involves social constructs within our society.

FYI, the “floodgates” policy argument came up pretty often in my first year of law school.  Keep your eye out for it.  If you see it, put a “P” in the margins next to it.

Dictum can be a little tricky to identify.  Essentially, you are looking for some kind of legal reasoning in the case that does not result in the court’s final ruling.  In other words, the court is expressing its view on something but does not require that reasoning to reach its conclusion.

For example, let us say that a law requires a party to file a motion to reopen his/her case within 90 days of the court’s final order and that the party must be physically present in the United States when he/she moves to reopen.  Now, assume the case before the court involves a party who was outside of the United States when he filed his motion 120 days after the initial order.  Any statement or observation the court makes with regards to the party not being in the United States may be considered dicta because the court need not use it to reach its conclusion.  If the court simply relies on the violation of the temporal limitation, then anything regarding the geographical location is unnecessary to the ultimate holding.

Holdings/rulings are the “meat and potatoes” of each case.  These are the major points you want to take away from any opinion you read because they are what the opinion stands for.  When you hear someone say that case “A v. B” stands for “xyz,” it is the holding that you are hearing; the legal principle/precedent established by the court.

Some cases have several minor holdings interspersed throughout the opinion.  Initially, you may have difficulty locating each holding.  Do not worry yourself over it.  In time, you will be able to identify holdings more easily.  Also, from what I can recall, most first year course Socratic professors really went for the major holdings of each case.  Secondary or tangential holdings were either follow-up questions after a student had gotten through the primary portion of the Socratic method or were brought up by the professor him/herself.

Here, you are looking for a sentence that basically tells you that the court is using this statement (i.e. reasoning) to reach its conclusion.  As noted above, it is “pivotal” to the court’s ultimate decision.

Often times, the court will begin the sentence with “we hold.”  When you see this, highlight it or mark it and put an “H” beside it in the margin.  You want to make sure you head into class knowing exactly where the major holding(s) is/are.

The conclusion is self-explanatory.  A well-written opinion will have a separate heading for the conclusion.  Either way, the conclusion will simply restate the law/holding and end by stating whether the court vacates, reverses, affirms, or remands the case.

It is kind of a lot to look for when you first start reading cases, but within a couple of weeks you will be coasting through opinions and mentally making note of where each section or component is.  Some students prefer jotting down notes in the margins and others simply remember where everything is.  Eventually, you will learn what works best for you, but make sure you keep in mind what it is you should be looking for.

– Daniel E. Bonilla

  1. February 7, 2011 at 2:32 pm

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