Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Reading Cases

Before you can write about law, you must know what the law is.* In law school, you learn the law primarily by reading cases (i.e. appellate court opinions). Classes will be starting soon, and these tips will help new 1Ls learn to read cases.

Read twice, if possible. I know students are time-pressed, especially in the first year. When you are learning to read cases, though, you’ll probably need to read them twice to know what
you’re supposed to take away. For example, the facts of the case are almost always outlined at the beginning of the opinion, followed by the court’s holding and the reasoning (or reasoning, then holding). But without knowing the court’s reasoning, you can’t know what facts are relevant and what facts merely provide context.

Once you’ve read the entire case, go back and highlight the important facts, the procedural background, the court’s holding, and the reasoning. I advocate a multicolor highlighter system—one
color for each section. Or, if you prefer a more Spartan method, underline the most important information and makes notes in the margins next to each section. Whatever method you chose, ensure that you can quickly locate the significant parts of the opinion during class or when you’re making outlines or studying for finals.

If you know what the case is about, keep that in mind as you’re reading. Often, you’ll know what area of law the case addresses by virtue of the syllabus. If you know you’ll be discussing offers in class, focus your attention on the portions of the opinion that address the elements of an offer and the court’s reasoning as to why certain conduct did or did not constitute an offer. If you’re reading a case with headnotes, use the headnotes as clues to the most important parts of the case (but remember—headnotes are not part of the opinion).

Look carefully at the court’s reasoning. Many new law students make the mistake of reading cases to find the outcome.  Don’t get me wrong—the outcome is important—but the reasoning is more important. You don’t read cases to figure out how the court ruled in that case—you read cases to figure out how the court might rule in future cases, and the reasoning section provides the foundation for
those predictions.. The reasoning section is where the court explains why it reached the conclusion it did and may contain an explanation of the evolution of a particular rule of law, a recap of past cases that have addressed that law, and policy or other arguments that support the court's conclusion.  
Pay attention to dicta (singular: dictum). Dicta are statements made in a case that aren’t necessary or essential to the outcome. While dicta aren't binding, they can offer important clues about how a court might rule under different factual circumstances—clues that can help you predict the likely outcome in an exam hypothetical. "The result might be different if...," "Had....occurred/been present here...," and similar statements often signal dicta. But sometimes dicta is less apparent, and you'll have to look closely for statements in the opinion that don't apply directly to the facts at hand but that suggest a different result under different facts.     

*When cases aren’t provided by the professor in a casebook or a handout, you’ll have to perform legal research, which is beyond the scope of this post (and this writer’s expertise).

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