Integral to this course and to understanding the decisions of the Supreme Court will be the ability to read, understand, brief, and discuss the cases of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). The following information, “How to Read Case Law,” discusses how to master these tasks. This information may be referenced and used elsewhere in the course, including in the Unit Assessments. The official site of the SCOTUS is a useful and beneficial tool. Some cases even provide the opportunity to listen to the oral arguments. This site should be used to supplement any additional information you may need. Another useful site is the Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. There are numerous sites on the Internet that provide case briefs. If any student case briefs are copied, however, there will be an automatic score of zero for the unit.
How to Read Case Law:
A court uses specific components in case law. You should use these components when you brief, or summarize, case law. Each component is detailed below in “The Components of a Case.”
As you read case law, try to identify each of the six components listed below. This identification process slows your reading, but it helps you stay focused on what you are reading and what you should be looking for as you read case law. The key is to read wisely and try to read a case only one time. For each paragraph, you should be able to list one or more of the components in the margin. If you cannot, go back and reread the paragraph.
Please note: Much of your reading for this course may seem overwhelming. However, there are some things you can do to remain focused and to read with purpose. Most U.S. Supreme Court cases are well written. The authors understand the use of topic sentences. Try this: Read only the first sentence of each paragraph in the case; do not take notes, do not underline, and just read the first sentences. This only takes a few minutes, but readers usually reap great rewards from MCJ 6230, Constitutional Law for Criminal Justice 3 this process. A good legal writer provides the most important information at the beginning of each paragraph. In most instances, you will pick up the key facts and key rules (law). By reading only the first sentence in each paragraph, you acquire an overview of the case. You may not understand why the Court held as it did, but you will have a jump-start on what the case is all about.
The Components of a Case:
1. Syllabus and Head Notes: At the beginning of many cases, there will be a syllabus and a summary of the case and its holdings. The summary should be used with caution, as its use varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In some jurisdictions, the syllabus is the law of the case, and the opinion is merely a detailed explanation of the syllabus. In other jurisdictions, the headnotes are merely editorial comments of the court reporter or the publishing company that prints the case, such as the West Publishing Company.
2. Procedural History: This information is usually located near the beginning of the case. It is sometimes called “judicial history.” The Court explains how the case worked its way to this court. Many cases begin in a trial court, and then move on to appeal. Most of the “reported cases” are appellate cases. Trial court decisions are usually not printed. If you have trouble tracing the procedural history, try listing the previous court proceedings in a timeline format.
3. Facts: The facts are at the core of all cases. Your initial focus should be on the facts. It often helps to think about the facts in light of what happened before this matter became part of a judicial proceeding. When writing the facts section of a case brief, tell a story about people before the initial trial. Courts often provide much more factual detail than you need to place into a case brief. Remember, a case brief is a summary of the case. The Court usually places the facts very near the beginning of the decision.
4. Issue(s): The issue (or issues, as there may be several) is the question before the Court (which is the Court writing the decision). It is important to remember that the issue on appeal is not the same as the issue presented to the lower court. For example, at the trial court level, the issue may involve the guilt or innocence of a defendant. On appeal, the issue could involve a question of judicial error, but the issue on appeal will not involve the factual finding of guilt or innocence. In other words, did the judge make an error that must be corrected on appeal? Now, with that said, there will be times when unusual issues move up on appeal, but this is a good starting point for your understanding of legal issues.
5. Rule(s) of Law: The rules are the law used by the Court. Rules usually originate in primary sources of law, such as the Constitution, statutes, rules or regulations, and case law. The rules are applied to the facts of a case. The Court usually goes to great lengths to make sure readers understand exactly why a certain outcome was reached. Some paragraphs in case law decisions contain only procedural history or only facts. A rule of thumb: When you read a paragraph containing law, it is probably an analysis paragraph. The rule sets out the legal test that the court uses to make a decision. The more difficult paragraphs contain law, facts, and explanation or reasoning. These paragraphs are usually reasoning/analysis paragraphs.
6. Reasoning/Analysis: This is the core of case law. The reasoning of a court is at the center of every decision. The reasoning or analysis component is very important. Analysis is usually the lengthy component of a decision. A court explains its reasoning using the key facts and the relevant law. In our legal system, case law builds upon case law. Readers of case law must understand why a court reached a specific decision.
A court’s analysis combines:
•the court’s explanation
Remember, readers have expectations. It is best to avoid surprise or confusion.
•A reader must understand which facts are most important, or key.
•A reader must understand which law was relied upon or followed by the court.
•A reader must understand the court’s reasoning.
7. Holding(s) and the Court’s Order: The holding states that court’s conclusion or decision on the particular legal issue. When you summarize the holding, try to keep it very concise. After the decision about the legal issue, the court either takes some action or it orders another court to take some action.
Part 1: Using the information from “How to Read Case Law,” prepare a brief for each of the following cases:
•Lochner v. New York
MCJ 6230, Constitutional Law for Criminal Justice 4
•Nebbia v. New York
•Ferguson v. Skrupa
Each brief should be approximately one page in length, written in 12-point Times New Roman font. After each brief, concisely discuss the importance of each case and the evolution of the case law over the 90-year span of these decisions. Within your discussion, include all dissenting and concurring opinions. Part 1 of this assignment should be a minimum total of four pages. All outside sources used should be properly cited in APA format.
Part 2: Using your course textbook and credible Internet research (sites such as Oyez and Cornell Law Institute — do not use Wikipedia, Answers, About.com, or any unverifiable or unreliable sources), discuss the evolution of the takings clause using detailed and thorough discussion of relevant and important case law.
Your essay should include a discussion of a minimum of three cases. Part 2 of this assignment should be a minimum of three pages in length written in 12-point Times New Roman font. All sources should be properly cited in APA format.
This assignment is due in Unit IV. Submit Parts 1 and 2 in one document.