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To prepare for classes and ultimately the bar exam, law students have to read a lot of cases. To reduce the bewildering mass of text into bite-size mini-morsels, there are many different formats, but the basic outline is:

  • Caption
  • Facts/Proceedings
  • Issue
  • Holding/Disposition
  • Rationale

N.B.: Not just for law school: for noders who want to write up newsworthy legal decisions and historic cases, the law student’s “case brief” is a useful model.

Caption

The “caption” of a lawsuit names the court and the parties. Cases are generally referred to by the names of the parties: Marbury v. Madison, Brown v. the Board of Education, etc..

Name THE COURT: not the judge. For any judge other than the nine justices of the United States Supreme Court, the name of the judge does not tell me what I need to know: is this an important case? Where can I find a copy of the opinion? To answer those questions I need to know what COURT the decision came from. Journalists frequently make this mistake.

What about all those numbers?

Docket numbers --long alpha-numeric strings assigned by the court-- are useless outside of actual litigation. (Moreover, anyone who really needs a docket number can find it, if you identify the parties and the court).

Citations (volume and page numbers), on the other hand, tell the reader where to find a copy of the opinion, either in hard copy in a law library or by plugging the numbers into an online legal search engine like Findlaw. Complete citations are usually not available for brand new cases (we won't know what page the case will be printed on until the publisher tells us) but they can be very useful for historical cases. I wish all noders would use short form citation —for example: Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971)— in writeups of important historical cases. This succinctly states the parties, court, and year.

Facts/Proceedings

“Facts” are a narrative of the underlying dispute or real-world problem. In the Anglo-American legal system, courts do not address abstract question of law: the lawsuit must arise from an actual “case or controversy”. The “facts” are probably the most important thing to discuss and get right in a case brief.

“Proceedings” means what happened after a lawsuit was filed. This is significant if the case is about procedure, and can also explain why an appeals court is applying a certain standard to review the case on appeal, but if you are not a legal professional you probably don’t care about any of that. For example, was there a trial in Marbury v. Madison? Probably not, but who cares? The case wasn’t about trial procedure (it was about the role of the judicial branch in the United States government.)

Issue/Holding/Disposition/Rationale

The “issue” is the point of the case, framed as a question.

The “holding” is the answer to that question.

The “disposition” is what the court actually ordered and can usually be summarized in a word or two (“affirmed”, “reversed”, “reversed and remanded”).

The “rationale” is an extended discussion of the court’s reasoning which leads up to the holding.

Extricating the “issue(s)” and “holding” from the “rationale” can be tricky. There are often many sub-issues which don't qualify as "the issue" for the purposes of your summary. Marbury, for example, addressed numerous sub-issues. First, did Marbury have a right to his commission? The court decided that he did. Second, the court asked: did the Court have the power to order the President to give Marbury his commission? The answer to that question was: “Yes”, because the Judiciary Act of 1789, a statute passed by Congress, gave the court the power to issue the appropriate order (here, a “writ of mandamus”). The opinion could have ended there, and that would have been the issue and the holding. But it wasn’t. Chief Justice Marshall posed an even more fundamental question: did Congress have the power (under the Constitution) to give the Court the power (under the Judiciary Act) to issue writs? The Court held: “No.” Congress could not alter the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. This is brilliant: Marshall “gives up” the power to order the President to give Marbury get his commission (which Marshall did not want to do anyway) to grab for the judiciary the jurisdiction to review the “constitutionality” of the laws passed by Congress. This power makes the Supreme Court “supreme”: the ultimate authority, the last word, in the American government.

For a “case brief” summary, the “issue” is the most important legal point (in Marbury: Whether the Judiciary Act was “constitutional”) and all the remaining sub-issues (Marbury’s commission, writs of mandamus, and so forth) can be discussed under “Facts” or the “Rationale”. For an E2 writeup, you need not format the writeup with a heading titled “Issue”, but you must identify the important issue, and tell us how the court resolved that issue.

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