Case Briefs: An Overview
A Case Brief is a tool attorneys and judges use to better understand a case. When a court makes any decision in a case, the court typically drafts what is termed an ‘opinion’ or an ‘order.’ These opinions/orders can be lengthy when a case is complex. In order to digest and understand such opinions/orders, it is common practice for attorneys to create an “outline” of the order. This outline is commonly referred to as a “Case Brief.” The ultimate purpose of a Case Brief is to help a reader understand why a court reached the decision it did. A Case Brief typically has seven to nine different sections that are important to understanding the case:
(1) Parties: This sections lists the names of the parties involved in the dispute. Many times there are multiple plaintiffs and defendants. Clearly defining the parties is essential to understanding what each party is asking a court to do.
(2) Procedural History: This section is sometimes omitted, but if the opinion is issued by an appellate court, it is always included. The procedural history describes pertinent previous decisions in the case made by other courts (typically trial courts). For example, if a party is appealing a trial court’s order to an appellate court, include that information in the procedural history section. Many times, the history of a case in a lower trial court dictates the extent to which an appellate court can review the lower court’s decision.
(3) Facts: This section outlines the important facts of the case. There are many, many facts in any case. However, when a court addresses a particular ‘issue’ of the case, not all of the facts may be important. The purpose of this section is to help the reader focus only on those facts that are important to the ‘issue’ before the Court. This section should not serve as a recitation of the facts.
(4) Issue: This section is the most important for individuals who are new to reading legal writing. One of the most difficult tasks when reading an opinion is determining what the Court is being asked to do or to decide. Some courts clearly state the issue of the case (e.g. “The issue before the Court is whether . . . .), while other courts do not articulate the issue as bluntly. Either way, identifying the issue the court is being asked to address is the first step to determine what the court decided. Please note, there may be more than one issue in a case!
(5) Summary of Arguments: This section is also sometimes omitted, particularly when the parties’ arguments are straightforward. However, knowing what the parties argue is key to understand how the court addresses those arguments. Many times the parties’ arguments frame the legal question for a court.
(6) Rule: In every order/opinion, a court is applying a rule of law. In this section, always state the rule of law the Court is applying and/or interpreting and any subsidiary rules that help to explain other rules.
(7) Court’s Reasoning: This section is the heart of a Case Brief. A court’s reasoning outlines how the court applied the rule of law to the facts. Much of lawyering is comparing and contrasting. Typically this section outlines how a court compared or distinguished the facts of its case to the facts of other cases with the same or similar ‘issue.’ In other words, this section outlines ‘what the court was thinking.’ I equate this section with showing your work on the complicated math problem. Many times understanding why a court reached a particular conclusion is more important than understanding what the conclusion was. This section helps a reader do just that – it helps answer “why?”.
(8) Holding: This section outlines a court’s ultimate decision or conclusion. The holding is usually only a few sentences and it prefaced with “the Court holds” or the “the Court concludes.”
(9) Disposition: This section outlines how a court disposes of a case.
Case Briefs are typically drafted in an outline format so they can be easily referenced. Here is an example of a Case Brief outline:
Summary of Arguments:
Dissenting/Concurring Opinion: Tips on Case Briefs and Grading Points will be divided by the number of cases you’re briefing to equal 100 points total: Case name and citation: Include the last names of the parties and citation just as in the text. (5 points) Parties: Clearly identify the parties. Specifically state the plaintiff(s) and the defendant(s) in the case. (5 points) Procedure History: Include the results at each level of the court system. For instance, the trial court found for the plaintiff. The defendant appealed and the case was overturned by the appellate court. You will always have 2 levels in your brief (trial court/appellate court), and maybe more depending on how far the case has progressed. (10 points) Facts: Don’t copy all of the facts provided; instead, include only those facts pertinent to the issue before the Court. Select those facts necessary for you to understand what is happening between the parties or the court. Review the facts to be sure to select only those facts most relevant to the outcome of the case. For instance, if the case was a hit and run, the fact that the victim said the car that hit him was red, then the color “red” is a relevant fact. (Especially if the defendant’s car is blue.) However, if the case is a contract for the purchase of a specific car, the fact that the car being purchased is “red” is probably not a relevant fact. Be sure to capture the relevant facts. (15 points) Issue: Put this in the form of a question that can be answered “yes” or “no.” Usually the author of the text has edited the case to illustrate a single issue. However, sometimes there may be more than one issue. If so, be sure to identify all of the issues separately. (10 points: divided by the number of issues in the case) Summary of Arguments: What did the parties argue to the court? If the parties made more than one arguments, be sure to include those. (10 points) Rule: State the law the court applied to make its decision. (10 points). Court’s Reasoning: Why did the court hold the way it did? What facts were used to made the determination (hint – these are your relevant facts)? Be sure to have a reasoning for each issue when you identify more than one issue. (15 points) Holding: What was the court’s answer to the question? This should be either “yes” or “no” with limited explanation. However, be sure not to explain the court’s reasoning. Also, be sure to have a holding for each issue when you identify more than one issue. (10 points: divided by the number of holdings in the case) Disposition: What was the court’s final action taken? (5 points) NOTE on dissenting/concurring opinions: Sometimes a member of the court will agree with the majority decision (concur), but for reasons different than the majority opinion, or will disagree (dissent), and that member will write a separate opinion to be included in the ruling on the case. If there are dissent or concurring opinions please discuss these opinions. Not every case will have another judge’s opinion, if that’s the case, just put N/A. (5 points)
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