Section 1.1.4: Case Law

Fundamentals of Procedural Law by Adam J. McKee

The legal world is a complex web, and one of its most intriguing threads is case law. You might be wondering, what exactly is case law? Simply put, case law refers to the laws that come from decisions made by judges. These laws, which form a significant part of our legal system, have their roots in the “common law” tradition.

The Common Law Tradition

To understand case law, we need to dive back into history and explore the common law tradition. Long ago, there were no written laws. Judges had to make decisions based on the norms and values of the community. These decisions gradually turned into laws and formed what we know as the “common law.” In fact, judges played such an essential role in shaping these laws that the terms “case law” and “common law” are often used interchangeably.

Case Law in Modern America

Over time, legislatures (groups of people who make laws) began to dominate many areas of law, including criminal law. They passed statutes, which are written laws, on various topics. For instance, in most U.S. states, criminal law comes from statutes, not case law. However, even when the law comes from a statute, the legal context for understanding that statute is often provided by case law. This context can be a previous judgment or a ruling from a judge that explains or interprets the statute. Thus, case law continues to play a critical role in our legal system.

Stare Decisis: The Power of Precedent

Stare decisis, a Latin term meaning “to stand by things decided,” is the principle by which courts are bound to respect the precedents set by past decisions. When a court decides on a legal question, that decision becomes a precedent that future courts will follow in similar cases. This doctrine ensures consistency, predictability, and stability in the legal system.

The significance of stare decisis in criminal procedural law cannot be overstated. By adhering to past decisions, courts ensure that rules are consistently applied, upholding the principle of fairness. For instance, the way courts interpret the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures often depends on precedents set in previous cases.

Judicial Review: The Power to Interpret

Judicial review is the power of courts to examine the actions of the legislative and executive branches (including police) and determine whether they are constitutional. Established by the landmark Supreme Court case Marbury v. Madison, judicial review is a vital check and balance in the U.S. government structure.

In the context of criminal procedural law, judicial review allows courts to interpret and apply constitutional protections, such as the right to a fair trial or the right against self-incrimination. By reviewing and interpreting statutes, regulations, and executive actions, courts ensure that these protections are upheld in every stage of criminal proceedings, from arrest to sentencing.

Case Law and Administrative Law

Another piece of the legal puzzle is administrative law. These are rules created by administrative agencies like the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). These agencies have the power, given to them by Congress or state legislatures, to make regulations that work like laws. These agencies exist because some areas of law are very technical and need experts to manage them.

The next time you read about a judge’s decision on a new administrative rule, you’ll know that you’re looking at case law in action. These laws, though they might seem complex, are an essential part of our legal system.

The Impact of Case Law on Procedural Law

Case law plays a critical role in interpreting and applying procedural law. It helps courts navigate the labyrinth of procedural rules, brings clarity to ambiguous provisions, and ensures consistency in application.

Consider the rules of evidence, which are part of procedural law. They specify what kind of information (evidence) can be presented in court and how. However, these rules may not cover every possible scenario, leaving room for interpretation. This is where case law steps in.

Through their decisions, judges interpret the rules of evidence, providing a clearer understanding of how they should be applied in different contexts. For instance, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Crawford v. Washington significantly shaped the Confrontation Clause’s interpretation, affecting the admission of testimonial evidence in criminal proceedings.

Case Law as a Source of Procedural Law

Notably, case law also serves as a source of procedural law. Court decisions, especially those from higher courts, can establish new procedures or modify existing ones. For example, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Miranda v. Arizona set a new procedure requiring law enforcement officers to inform suspects of their rights during custodial interrogation. This procedure, now known as Miranda warnings, has become a staple in U.S. criminal procedure.

An integral aspect of the judicial role in the American legal system is the crafting of procedural law. Judges, in their capacity to interpret and apply the law, are continuously shaping the procedures that guide the conduct of legal proceedings. This is particularly true in the context of interpreting the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Provisions like the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination, and the Sixth Amendment’s right to a speedy and public trial are not self-executing.

Their meaning, scope, and application are determined through judicial interpretation in individual cases. As such, judges, through their case law rulings, effectively mold the procedural rules that govern how criminal justice is administered in the United States. It is this role of judicial interpretation and case law development that ensures our procedural laws are continually evolving and adapting to changing societal contexts.

Case Law’s Role in Evolving Procedural Law

Case law is also instrumental in evolving procedural law to respond to changing societal norms and values. Through their decisions, judges can adapt procedural rules to new circumstances or technologies, ensuring that the law remains relevant and fair. An excellent example of this is the courts’ response to the growth of electronic communication. Case law has guided the interpretation of procedural rules related to digital evidence and electronic discovery, keeping procedural law in step with technological advancement.

Writing About Cases

The Bluebook lays out precise rules and formats for citing various legal materials, including case names.

According to the Bluebook, case names should be italicized in legal documents.  That rule generally applies to student papers as well!  The aim is to set them apart from the rest of the text. In non-academic legal documents, such as court filings, the party names in case citations are usually abbreviated. However, in academic writing, including law review articles, full party names are typically used unless the name is exceedingly long.

Parties to the Case vs. Name of the Case

The names of the parties to the case are generally the name of the case itself. For example, in the famous case of “Roe v. Wade,” “Roe” and “Wade” are the parties to the case. However, the way you refer to the case or the parties can change depending on the context.

When discussing the case broadly or referring to the legal precedent it set, you would usually use the full case name, e.g., “The Roe v. Wade decision changed abortion laws in the United States.”

But when talking about the parties within the context of what happened in that specific case, you would typically refer to them individually. For example, you might say, “The court ruled in favor of Roe.”  In this case, you don’t italicize the person’s name.  Save the italics for the name of the case, not a party to thee case.

It’s important to note that “v.” is used in the case name and stands for “versus,” indicating a conflict or dispute between the parties. While “v.” is commonly used in print, when speaking, you should say “versus.”

The Bluebook provides a comprehensive guide on how to accurately cite case names and the names of parties to a case. Understanding these rules is crucial for proper legal writing and citation.


Section 1.1.4 focused on the concept of case law, a fundamental pillar of the American legal system. In this system, judges interpret the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and statutes to make procedural law. The doctrine of stare decisis, a principle that commands respect for precedent, is critical to this process.

We delved into how judges, through their rulings on individual cases, lay down procedural guidelines, thereby influencing the administration of criminal justice. The importance of judicial review, the power of the courts to examine and invalidate actions of the legislative and executive branches, was also highlighted.

Finally, we looked at proper citation practices as outlined in the Bluebook, particularly regarding case names and the difference between the names of the parties and the case. These concepts and terminologies play a pivotal role in understanding and engaging with the field of law.

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File Created:  08/04/2018

Last Modified:  06/29/2023

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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