How to read a court case

 

As with other reading material, the best way to read a court case is to read the entire case and then take notes as you reread. Court cases present an extra challenge for two reasons: (1) the unfamiliar legal terminology and (2) the difficulty in determining what is important and what can be ignored. To help separate the "wheat from the chaff" you should try briefing the case. Briefing a case helps you to focus on the important issues.

 

As you read the case, answer the following questions:

 

1. Begin with the name and citation of the case.

2. Is this case being decided by a trial court or an appellate court? (Note: most cases you read will be appellate cases, because the opinions of trial courts have less precedental value)

3. In the original case, who was the plaintiff and who was the defendant?

4. What was the original complaint? (libel, invasion of privacy, violation of a statute, etc.)

5. What were the facts that led to the complaint?

6. What was the trial court's decision? (who "won" the case)

7. What are the legal questions/issues that are being raised on appeal?

8. What is the present court's decision (is the original decision affirmed, reversed, or remanded?)

9. What rule or test is the court using to decide the outcome? This will relate to the legal question that must be decided.

10. What reason does the court give for using this rule?

 

Sometimes the court makes your job easier and says "The issue before the court is" or "we apply the following test" Other times you have to reread the case a few times to figure out what the issue or rule is! The above ten steps spell out the briefing process in detail. To summarize:

What are the FACTS?

What LEGAL QUESTION or ISSUE is the court trying to answer?

What is the DECISION?

What is the RULE OR TEST the court used to reach its decision?

What is the court's REASONING?