Integral to this course 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 Brief Case Law,” discusses how to master these tasks. This information will be referenced and used throughout the course, including in the unit assessments.
The official site of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) is a useful and beneficial tool. Some cases even provide the ability to listen to the oral arguments. This site could be used to supplement any additional information the student might need.
Note: There are numerous sites on the internet that provide case briefs. If any student case briefs are copied, there will be an automatic score of zero for the respective unit.
How to Brief Case Law
A court uses the following components in case law. You should use these components when you brief, or summarize, case law. Each component is detailed below:
- Proper and full legal citation
- Procedural history
- Holding, including vote
- Rule(s) of law, Legal principle that was used/created
- Rationale reasoning/analysis use by court
- Significance—What do we have now, that we did not have before this case?
Case Brief Explanation
Proper and full legal citation
List the title of the case and the case’s legal reference according to APA standards.
Example: Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966)
Typically, there is a section that covers the judicial history, that is a very short summary of what happened at each preceding stage: trial court of XX found the defendant guilty (as described in the “Facts” section), (party name) appealed based upon (specify legal issue), and the appellate court affirmed or reversed, it was then appealed to the (State) Supreme Court which reversed or affirmed, and based upon the Constitutional issues of 1,2,3, (these are enumerated in the “issues” section) the case was appealed to the (name the federal court), that affirmed or reversed, and then (party name) appealed to the USSC on the grounds of (very specific constitutional grounds); the court granted certiorari (agreed to hear the case on this specific basis).
Facts of the case
Facts of the case should be the ABSOLUTE fewest words possible to convey the legally relevant issues. No details are needed unless they are specifically related to the particular legal challenge bringing us to the United States Supreme Court (USSC). It takes discipline and practice to keep this to a few lines while still capturing the essentials. This section ends with a conviction and provides a segue to the next section.
Issues are answered using yes or no question(s) that identify the larger constitutional question that will be considered by the USSC and is typically quite specific in terms of a legal issue, but not necessarily specific to the set of facts in this case. It is possible that a single case has more than one issue, but each should be posed in a yes or no question in the issues section, and answered as a yes or no question in the “Decision” section. This is the shortest section; one line per issue.
EXAMPLE: 1. Are “statements obtained from an individual who is subjected to custodial police interrogation” admissible against him in a criminal trial?
2. Are “procedures which assure that the individual is accorded his privilege under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution not to be compelled to incriminate himself” necessary?
Decisions or “Holdings” always start with an answer to the yes or no question:
EXAMPLE 1. Yes, “statements obtained from an individual who is subjected to custodial police interrogation” are admissible against him in a criminal trial;
2. Yes, it is necessary to have “procedures which assure that the individual is accorded his privilege under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution not to be compelled to incriminate himself.”
That question is then followed by the vote count. After the court vote, include a statement about the vote and which justices sided together.
EXAMPLE: In a 5-4 decision, the Court reversed the judgment of the Arizona Supreme Court. Justice XXX, writing for the majority, joined by Justices M2, M3, M4 & M5; Dissenting opinion was written by Justice (joined by name of D2, D3, & D4 dissenting Justices). If necessary: Concurring opinions were written by (name of concurring justices).
What legal principle was in question, and was it upheld, modified, or reversed (not the case, but the concept of stare decisis)
Reasoning or rationale is simply the explanation of the legal reasoning used to reach the decision. This typically contains precedence; that is, case law that has already been decided. It will usually modify/expand/curtail, or occasionally, outright reverse previous doctrine. This could be quite extensive for students in law school, but for our purposes, should probably capture only the essentials — what were the main points of reasoning. Relevant doctrine and primary case law upon which these decisions relied should be identified by name (with proper legal citations).
Analysis or significance is a section that basically answers the question “What does this all mean?” and “Why is this important?” Or, more pragmatically, “What do we have after this case that we did not have before this case?” This is a place for students to provide some critical thinking and application of the concepts or legal principles from the case law. EXAMPLE: Brown v. Board of Education reversed the separate but equal doctrine, making racial segregation of any kind unacceptable. Gregg v. Georgia reversed the ruling in Furman v. Georgia, reinstating the death penalty in this country four years after Furman found it unconstitutional.
A court’s analysis combines:
- key facts,
- law, and
- the court’s explanation.
Remember, the point of a case brief is to provide some consistent format by which someone could pick up the brief and find the relevant facts in a predictable order such that one could make a quick reading and know the salient points of the case, as well as the ruling.
Use the structure provided for all case briefs to provide that consistency.
- A reader must understand which facts are most important or key.
- A reader must understand which law was relied on or followed by the court.
- A reader must understand the court’s reasoning.
Part 1: Using the “case brief document instructions,” found in Unit I, prepare a brief on each of the following cases:
- Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy R.R. v. City of Chicago, 166 U.S. 226 (1897)
- United States v. Carolene Products Co., 304 U.S. 144 (1938)
- Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council, 505 U.S. 1003 (1992)
- Kelo v. City of New London, 125 S. Ct. 2655 (2005)
Each brief should be approximately one page, 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 the discussion, include all dissenting and concurring opinions. This part of the assignment should be a minimum of four pages total. All outside sources should be properly cited in APA format.
Part 2: Using ONLY the case law for your analysis—cite only the case law, but you can access and read the case at sites such as Oyez (http://www.oyez.org) and Cornell Law Institute (https://www.law.cornell.edu/). 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 for Part 2 should include a discussion of a minimum of two cases and be at least two pages in length.
Your completed assignment, both parts one and two, should be a minimum of six pages in 12-point Times New Roman font. All outside sources should be properly cited in APA format.
You must submit Parts 1 and 2 of this assignment as one document. Do not email your paper directly to your professor. By uploading your assignment using SafeAssign, your university record will automatically be updated to indicate you have submitted your paper, and it will be provided to your professor for grading.