Fundamentals of Legal Research
Adam J. McKee, Ph.D.
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Structure and Purpose of Cases
A case, then, is an opinion or decision written by a judge (for the court). The purpose of these written decisions is primarily to inform the reader. The litigants in a particular case are probably only interested in the outcome of the case; a general audience of legal professionals is much more interested in the court’s legal reasoning. These cases are not decided in a vacuum. Judges rely on previous court decisions under the doctrine of stare decisis, as well as statutes, constitution, and administrative regulations in formulating these statements of the law. The judges tasked with writing these legal opinions are keenly aware that practicing attorneys and scholars will be looking to these written opinions for a detailed analysis of the law. Accordingly, good cases provide a detailed account of the factual and legal issues giving rise to a particular decision.
When an appellate court decides a case, one of the judges usually takes on the task of writing the opinion of the court. The number of judges represented in a written opinion largely depends on the place of the court rendering the decision in the hierarchy of courts. Appeals courts are most often made up of three judges while the Supreme Courts are most often made up of nine justices. Note that cases will usually note that a particular justice “Delivered the opinion of the court,” but it is not merely the judge writing a personal opinion. Many cases result in decisions that are not unanimous. Often, one or more judges will disagree with the court’s decision. The opinion of the court, then, represents the majority of the court. The written opinion will detail the legal question or questions being answered, the determination of the court concerning the question—the holding—and the legal rationale for reaching the decision that was reached. Note that while concurring and dissenting opinions are a part of the case, they do not create case law.
Not all cases make it in written form in the court reporters. The process is selective, at least at the intermediate level. Nearly every case decided by the Supreme Courts (both state and federal) is published. Often the text of a case is merely a refusal by the court to hear the case. Very few types of cases get an automatic hearing by the Supreme Court of the United States. When the Supreme Court declines to hear a case, its action is known as “denying a petition for writ of certiorari.” This is commonly abbreviated “Cert. denied.” The denial of certiorari has the effect of endorsing the decision of the lower court. In other words, the Court will decline to hear cases that it believes pose no interesting or important issues, as is the case when a lower court as sufficiently dealt with the matter.
Because court cases are often printed in official and commercial versions, there are some differences in how the case looks in “print.” Still, there are enough similarities to establish a common list of elements that can be found in nearly every court case designated for publication.
The first thing you are likely to encounter when you read a court case is the caption (also known as the name or style of the case). This usually originates with the names of the parties to the case. Because the United States has an adversarial legal system, most cases are styled with one party versus the other. The most common form of a case name, then, is X v. Y. The first party listed is the plaintiff—the party responsible for bringing the case to court. At the level of the criminal trial, this will usually be the government. What the government calls itself differs from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. The second party listed is usually the defendant in the case.
If the case is an appeal, then the first name will be the appellant (also called the petitioner) and the second is the appellee (also called the respondent). Note that this convention often causes a citation “flip flop” where the criminal trial of Mr. Miranda was styled Arizona v. Miranda, and it became Miranda v. Arizona on appeal. This is because, at the criminal trial, it was the state (represented by the prosecution) bringing the case to court. On appeal, Mr. Miranda brought the case to court, trying to get the appellate court to overturn his conviction. In other words, when a trial court decision is appealed in a criminal case, the names will be reversed.
In rare instances, such as in juvenile cases and estate cases in civil law, there is only one party to a case. In these cases the case may be styled with “In Re” (short for In Regard To) preceding the person’s name. In Re Gault and In Re Winship are examples of landmark juvenile justice cases styled in this manner.
A second element found in all court cases is a docket number (sometimes referred to as a record number). This is a unique identifying number assigned to each case by the clerk of the court. Its purpose is to keep every document pertaining to a particular case together. Court cases can generate astounding numbers of documents, and clerks use docket numbers to track them all. These numbers are also useful in conducting research on pending cases. Early versions of the opinion (those issued prior to the official citation being determined) can be tracked by docket number as well.
The official citation will appear in cases when it becomes available. Published opinions are cited by the volume number in which the case appears, and the page on which the caption is found. As a matter of both clarity and precision, the year that the case was decided should also follow the citation in parentheses. For Supreme Court citations, it is conventional to cite not only the official reporter (U.S. Reports), but the two major commercial publications as well.
Another common feature of published opinions is the syllabus. The syllabus is a summary of the case’s facts and the holding of the court. In some jurisdictions, the syllabus is prepared by the court. In others, it is among the editorial features prepared by a commercial publisher.
Some cases, especially Supreme Court cases prepared by commercial publishers, will contain headnotes. The headnotes are editorial content that describes the holding of the court. Note that these headnotes are not part of the holding; they have no legal authority and are for educational and analytical purposes only. The major purpose of headnotes is to serve as a finding aid for legal researchers.
The names of the attorneys on both sides of the case usually appear just prior to the actual opinion of the court.
The actual opinion of the court is usually marked by the name of the judge that wrote the opinion of the court. Recall that the judge writing the opinion is not expressing his personal beliefs; it is an expression of the collective decision of the court. Because there are more than one judge deciding a particular case, multiple opinions can result. The official opinion of the court (the majority consensus) is always presented first. Judges that agree with the outcome of the case but disagree with the rationale provided by the court may write concurring opinions. The transition between the holding of the court and any concurring opinions is clearly marked by the name of the judge writing the concurring opinion (other judges may join the concurring opinion). Judges that disagree with the outcome of the case may write dissenting opinions. If a judge is not expressly listed in these alternate opinions, it is implied that the judge agreed with the opinion of the court.
The opinion will have several components that are not always clearly delineated. These are things that you will need to search for in your reading of the case. A good researcher will read every case in its entirety. These are the elements that you will want to look for:
Facts. The key facts, as described by the court, are essential to the legal researcher. Most legal research revolves around finding decided cases that match a new case factually. Without an analysis of the facts, the relevance of the published case cannot be ascertained. Even in academic research, such a class project on police procedure, the facts are relevant in determining what the police may or may not lawfully do in a particular situation. Many judicial opinions begin with an overview of the relevant facts of the case.
Judicial History. This important information explains how a particular case came before the court, most often tracing the case back to a trial and all subsequent appeals and treatments by lower courts.
Issues. These are the specific legal questions the court is attempting to answer in a specific case. Judges are kind enough to signal these by using introductory phrases such as “The question before the court is….” and “At issue in this case is….” Learning to identify these correctly is an important task for students required to write case briefs.
Rules. These are the primary sources of law that judges use in their analysis of the legal issues. Constitutions, Codes, regulations, and prior cases may all be cited.
Analysis. This is the reasoning component of the decision. This is usually the longest section of a case and is often the biggest challenge to the student writing a case brief because it must be succinctly summarized. The facts, rules, and issues will be woven together to explain why the court ruled as it did.
Conclusion. This is the holding or legal outcome of the case.
These basic elements become familiar to law students through the acronym IRAC, which stands for Issues, Rules, Analysis, and Conclusions. This IRAC Method is used widely in the formatting of case briefs, which are summaries of cases prepared by law students as study aids. Strangely, the IRAC acronym does not include the facts of the case and the judicial history of the case. These are usually required elements of a good case brief.
When reading a court decision, keep an eye out for one or more of these elements in every paragraph. If you are the type of person that prints things before reading or uses print books, it can be helpful to make notes in the margins as to what paragraphs in the case contain which elements. This makes it very easy to backtrack and write a case brief. In addition, be aware that many paragraphs in a case will contain more than one of these elements. In the analysis, for example, the judges will often reference the rules of law they are applying, or the facts of the case. An alternate system is to use colored highlighters to markup a case, using different colors to set off the facts, issues, rules, and analysis.
Modification History File Created: 08/08/2018 Last Modified: 06/13/2019
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