Fundamentals of Legal Research
Adam J. McKee, Ph.D.
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Writing in the Law
Writing a Case Brief
A case brief is merely a summary of a reported case. Case briefs should not be confused with trail briefs: Trial briefs are documents is a document submitted to a court explaining the facts, issues, and legal arguments presented in a particular case. Writing case briefs serves several purposes. The major advantage to the student of the law is that writing case briefs forces the student to closely analyze the case, and the finished brief helps organize many, many cases into manageable study materials. Practicing attorneys can use case briefs as foundational material when preparing more substantial legal documents, such as trial briefs. A well-written case brief simplifies and summarizes a reported case.
The exact style of a case brief depends largely on who will be evaluating it. If you are a student and the brief will be submitted for a grade, be sure to seek guidance as to the precise formatting the professor is looking for. Because the exact formatting requirements will change from application to application, the comments about writing good briefs in this book will be very general.
The name of the case, the citation for the case, and the year the case was decided are essential elements of any good case brief. When citing the Supreme Court, only the official citation is required. You (or your professor) may want a full parallel citation, which includes the United States Reports citation along with the Supreme Court Reporter and the Lawyers’ Edition citations. Both of the commercial sets offer different legal research tools, and many legal researchers prefer one over the other.
Most briefs will include a section on judicial history. It is often important to understand who brought the case to the court writing the decision and why. Briefly summarize each court that considered the case, and what the outcome was at that level of the court hierarchy. Avoid the temptation to discuss why the lower courts ruled as they did; this can confuse the reader as to what the court writing the opinion had to say about the issue.
Many cases will provide a level of factual detail that is simply not necessary in a case brief. In your case brief, include only those facts that are necessary to understand why the court ruled on the legal issues at hand as it did. Avoid names and prefer roles when telling the story. For example, “the police officer” and “the suspect” are much more useful in understanding the case than “Mr. Smith” and “Mr. Jones.” In some instances, both can be accomplished by using a descriptor with the person’s name, such as referring to “Officer Smith.”
The issues in the case are critically important and must be included. Most of the time, these can be reduced to a single sentence, phrased in the form of a question. Be careful to note when the court is dealing with more than a single issue in a particular case. For general purposes, you will need to make sure that all issues are contained in your brief.
The rules the court used in its analysis and ultimate ruling need to be included. They type of rule that the court considers may be any primary source of law. In constitutional cases, the Supreme Court will often refer directly to the constitution, as well as important Court decisions that have been relied upon as precedent. Cases and materials used in other sections need not be considered in the rules section. In addition, the court may distinguish other cases from the one at hand.
The analysis section (sometimes labeled reasoning) is at once the longest and most important section of a good case brief. Think of the analysis if a synthesis of the other sections that results in a focused treatment of the issues in the case. In other words, it explains the court’s rationale. The primary objective when writing an analysis section should be to explicitly explain why the court ruled as it did. For some cases, the court makes its reasoning explicit, and the task is easy. In other cases, the court is less than transparent and the analysis can be quite difficult.
The holding in the case is the legal principle that can be taken from the court’s decision in the case. Each issue raised in the issue section of a good brief will be answered here. As a matter of tradition, this section is a very succinct statement of the court’s ruling; there is no room for discussion.
When a brief is complete, it should be edited for grammar and style. The style should be formal, and informal style elements such as the use of contractions and the use of the personal pronoun “I” should be avoided. Since a brief is a statement of what the court said and why they said it, be careful not to interject personal opinions. Statements such as “I believe” and “I think” have no place in a case brief.
Some Writing Conventions
Court/court. When the term “Court” appears by itself, capitalized in a sentence, it usually refers to the Supreme Court of the United States. When used in the full name of a particular court, the word is also capitalized (e.g., the Arkansas Supreme Court). In other uses, the term is usually not capitalized.
Modification History File Created: 08/08/2018 Last Modified: 06/13/2019
This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.
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