Case briefs

From NewlyPossible.org

The term "case" can refer to an entire course of litigation between parties to a particular dispute (e.g., the complete case of Gadson v. ECO Services from the initial complaint through the final disposition). The term can also refer more narrowly to a particular explanation that a judge writes to explain a significant decision that they make during this dispute (e.g., a trial court's order granting summary judgment or an appellate court's decision overturning that order -- concepts that we will soon discuss). These explanations are also called "opinions." Whereas most casebooks include only short excerpts of these opinions, we will generally read them in their entirety.

These opinions are the "cases" that you should "brief." A "case brief" systematically summarizes an opinion by carefully mapping the court's explanation onto a consistent structure. The core of this structure is some variation of an "Issue-Rules-Analysis-Conclusion" framework that you will frequently use in your case briefs, memos, exams, practice of law, and even everyday life. This framework will also help you to formulate "holdings" from each case. As you will learn, a "holding" is a unique combination of law and fact that (1) is necessary to the outcome of the present case and (2) can be applied as a rule of decision in a future case. It may also be called a "ratio decidendi." (For the 1Ls: This should be confusing now! It will become clearer later.)

In this course, your case briefs should follow the format below. Relying on generic briefs created by third parties is unlikely to help your class preparation and could actually harm your exam performance. Similarly, relying on the less structured notes that you take while reading a case for the first time (often called marginal notes or book briefs) will prevent you from viewing the case holistically and framing it effectively -- skills that you will need both in the near term (on the exam) and in the long term (in practice).

Our cases will present both substantive and procedural issues that are new to you. (This is intentional: You are learning to teach yourself. This is what lawyers do to keep up with and even ahead of constantly changing law.) While you should at least note and consider every issue, you may choose to focus your effort on the issues that seem most relevant to our class topic.

The format for case briefs in this course is:

  1. What are the basics?
    1. What is the case name?
    2. What is the case citation (with court, year, and judge)?
    3. Why is the case important to what we are studying? (Why did we read this case?)
    4. What kind of court is this (trial or appeal; state or federal)?
    5. What state’s law is the court applying?
  2. What are the relevant facts?
    1. What are the basic facts? How would you summarize them in three sentences or fifteen seconds?
    2. What are all the facts that are material to the legal issues before the court?
    3. Are these facts established, assumed to be true, or alleged?
  3. What is the relevant procedural information?
    1. Who are the parties?
    2. What are their claims? In general, you should be able to state each claim as: "[The plaintiff] has a claim of [tort] against [the defendant] for [harming the plaintiff] by [engaging in some tortious conduct]."
    3. What is the history of the litigation?
    4. What is the court now being asked to do? By whom?
  4. What are the issues?
    1. What issues (including nested issues) are addressed? How do they relate to each other?
    2. What is the first issue?
      1. What does the court hold? (To reiterate: A "holding" is a unique combination of law and fact that (1) is necessary to the outcome of the present case and (2) can be applied as a rule of decision in a future case. It may also be called a "ratio decidendi.")
      2. What specific rules (including previous case holdings) and arguments does the court reference?
      3. How does the court apply these rules and arguments to the facts of the case?
      4. What does the court decide?
      5. Do any judges concur or dissent on this issue?
      6. Which parties are pleased? Which are not pleased?
    3. What is the second issue? ...
    4. What is the third issue? ...
    5. What is the final issue? ...
  5. What is the outcome of the case?
    1. What is the court’s judgment?
    2. Which parties are pleased? Which are not pleased?
    3. What happens next in the dispute?
  6. What do you think?
    1. What legal terms and concepts are key? What do they mean?
    2. What else did you learn from the opinion (such as the origins of or alternatives to a particular rule)?
    3. What questions do you have?
    4. What bothers you?
    5. Is the case consistent with the goals of law?
    6. Does the court reveal, acknowledge, or omit potentially important context (such as bias)?
  7. Return to the top: Why is the case important to what we are studying?