How to brief a case
The case brief represents a final product after reading a case, rereading it, taking it apart, and putting it back together again. In addition to its function as a tool for self-instruction and referencing, the case brief also provides a valuable “cheat sheet” for class participation.
You are the person that the brief will serve! Keep this in mind when deciding what elements to include as part of your brief and when deciding what information to include under those elements.
What are the elements of a brief?
Four elements that are essential to any useful brief are the following:
- Facts (name of the case and its parties, what happened factually and procedurally, and the judgment)
- Issues (what is in dispute)
- Holding (the applied rule of law; yes or no answer only)
- Rationale (reasons for the holding)
If you include nothing but these four elements, you should have everything you need in order to recall effectively the information from the case during class or several months later when studying for exams.
Facts of the case (what actually happened, the controversy)
When describing the Judgment of the case, distinguish it from the Holding. The Judgment is the factual determination by the court, in favor of one party, such as “affirmed,” “reversed,” or “remanded.” In contrast, the Holding is the applied rule of law that serves as the basis for the ultimate judgment.
Remember that the purpose of a brief is to remind you of the important details that make the case significant in terms of the law. A brief is also like a puzzle piece.
The elements of the brief create the unique shape and colors of the piece, and, when combined with other pieces, the picture of the common law takes form. A well-constructed brief will save you lots of time by removing the need to return to the case to remember the important details and also by making it easier to put together the pieces of the common law puzzle.
EXTRACTING THE RELEVANT INFORMATION: ANNOTATING AND HIGHLIGHTING
What information is important to include under each element? The simple answer is: whatever is relevant. But what parts of a case are relevant? When you read your first few cases, you may think that everything that the judge said was relevant to his ultimate conclusion. Even if this were true, what is relevant for the judge to make his decision is not always relevant for you to include in your brief. Remember, the reason to make a brief is not to persuade the world that the ultimate decision in the case is a sound one, but rather to aid in refreshing your memory concerning the most important parts of the case.
What facts are relevant to include in a brief? You should include the facts that are necessary to remind you of the story. If you forget the story, you will not remember how the law in the case was applied. You should also include the facts that are dispositive to the decision in the case. For instance, if the fact that a car is white is a determining factor in the case, the brief should note that the case involves a white car and not simply a car. To the extent that the procedural history either helps you to remember the case or plays an important role in the ultimate outcome, you should include these facts as well.
What issues and conclusions are relevant to include in a brief? There is usually one main issue on which the court rests its decision. This may seem simple, but the court may talk about multiple issues, and may discuss multiple arguments from both sides of the case. Be sure to distinguish the issues from the arguments made by the parties. The relevant issue or issues, and corresponding conclusions, are the ones for which the court made a final decision and which are binding. The court may discuss intermediate conclusions or issues, but stay focused on the main issue and conclusion which binds future courts.
What rationale is important to include in a brief? This is probably the most difficult aspect of the case to determine. Remember that everything that is discussed may have been relevant to the judge, but it is not necessarily relevant to the rationale of the decision. The goal is to remind yourself of the basic reasoning that the court used to come to its decision and the key factors that made the decision favor one side or the other.
A brief should be brief! Overly long or cumbersome briefs are not very helpful because you will not be able to skim them easily when you review your notes. On the other hand, a brief that is too short will be equally unhelpful because it lacks sufficient information to refresh your memory. Try to keep your briefs to one page in length. This will make it easy for you to organize and reference them.
What is a Case Brief?
A case brief is a condensed, concise outline-form summary of a court opinion. Hence, the term “brief.” It is generally used for more efficient self-study (it’s easier and more simple than re-reading a 100-page long case every time you want to refresh your memory about the case). It is also used to present the case to others (it’s easier and more simple than reading a 100-page long case verbatim). In other words, a case brief boils down a court opinion to the key elements and discusses the essence of the court’s opinion. These basic elements are the facts of the case, the particular legal issue that is at question in the case, the specific legal rule of law that is applicable to the case, the application of that rule of law to the facts of the case, and then the court’s holding/conclusion. With the exception of the specific rule of law (which should almost always be quoted), the case brief should be a summary and paraphrasing of the court’s opinion in your own words. This forces you to understand the court’s opinion much more deeply.
Model Case Brief Template and Sample:
Case: Name of the case, (and year of the decision).
Facts: Who are the parties to the lawsuit, what is their dispute, and how did they get to the Supreme Court? In your own words, only include the few important facts necessary to understand the case; e.g. the time of day a defendant was arrested is usually not important, etc.
Issue: What is the basic legal question regarding what specific provision of law that is to be decided in the case?
Holding: What is the majority’s basic answer to the basic legal question in the case? This is a yes/no answer.
Majority Opinion Reasoning: What is the majority’s explanation why it reached its holding? You will want to create a summarized, condensed, paraphrased outline of the court’s reasoning. The reasoning simply consists of two things: the RULE and the APPLICATION (of the rule to the facts of the case):
What rule of law is announced in the case? A court first must announce a specific controlling principle of law (e.g. the court’s interpretation of a constitutional provision, NOT the constitutional provision itself!) that applies to the issue in the case. This is also the abstract, general legal principle that will be applied to all future cases involving this issue, using this case as a precedent, and it is important to understand under what factual circumstances the rule applies. Often the court will usually explain why the rule is being created or applied, such as the origin of the rule, or the policy behind the rule existing, and also will often explain why any alternative rules proposed by the parties or the dissenting justices are being rejected. Here the court usually looks at the words of a constitutional or statutory provision, the original intent behind that law, and public policy arguments. These are not the rule itself, but the explanation of, or justification for, the rule. You must quote precisely the actual rule itself (but not the explanation for the rule) that the court finally adopts and decides to apply; the actual wording of the rule itself is known as the “black letter law.” The rule itself must be quoted because every word matters: there is a huge difference between “a” and “the” or between “may” and “must” etc. But the justification for the rule should be primarily in your own words.
How does the rule of law specifically apply given the specific facts of the case at issue? In other words, given the rule of law that should apply, which party wins according to that rule given the facts of the case being heard? The reasoning of the court here should consider the facts of the case, and might analogize or distinguish the facts of the current case to the facts of earlier similar or related cases. You should explain all this in your own words, quoting only an occasional word or phrase.
Sample Model Case Brief
Case: Roe v. Wade (1973)
Facts: A woman was denied an abortion by a doctor afraid to violate a Texas criminal statute prohibiting abortions except “for the purpose of saving the life of the mother.” The Federal District Court ruled the statute unconstitutional; there was a direct appeal by Texas to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Issue: Does the Texas statute violate a constitutional right to have an abortion?
Majority Reasoning: (Justice Blackmun)
A. Rule: The State of Texas asserts it’s rule (a law banning all abortions) is furthered by 2 interests: (1) Protecting prenatal life and (2) the medical safety of woman. The court accepts these interests, but rejects Texas’s absolute rule because:
1.There are 2 counter-weighing interests of the woman:
a.The woman has a privacy right grounded in a “penumbra” of Amendments 1, 4, 5, 9,14, because “activities relating to marriage, procreation, family relationships, and child rearing and education” are “fundamental” and “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.”
b.The woman also has an interest in avoiding possible severe physical and psychological harm if an abortion is denied.
2.Also, a fetus is not a “person” within the meaning of the constitution, so it doesn’t get protection as a person.
3.Therefore, a proper rule balances the interests of the state v. the interests of the woman: in the early stages of pregnancy, the woman has stronger interests than the state, but as a fetus becomes more advanced, the state interests in prenatal life and a woman’s health grow to be “compelling,” thus overriding the woman’s interests. This results in a 3-part RULE (trimester framework) the court announces:
a.first trimester of pregnancy: no/little state interest in regulating abortion, so most abortion regulations are invalid.
b.second trimester: moderate state interest (medical health of woman) so most medical regulations are okay.
c.third trimester: Compelling state interest (fetal viability) so can outlaw abortion except to save woman’s life.
B. Application: Here (in this case) Texas’s law violates this framework, because it outlaws abortions not just in the third trimester, but also in the first and second trimesters of pregnancy.
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