3.1 – What Is a “Case?” and Understanding Opinions
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Transcript

How to Read a Case/Opinion

In this class, we're going to try to learn how to read a case in law school. This is something you're going to be doing over and over, and it's a skill that you really want to develop, but let's start with basics. What is a case? What do we mean when we say, "a case?" Sometimes the word "case" in law, it refers to an entire course of legal proceedings that start in a trial court, and then go all the way up through an appellate court.

Opinions

Explanation of judicial action, reasoning of decision

Sometimes that's what people mean, but typically what we mean when we're talking about it in this context is we mean actually an opinion. An opinion by a judge. A document that was written by a judge or by a multi-judge panel that is going to explain something that the judge is doing or not doing. With an opinion, what's going on is a judge or the court has been asked to do something, and the judge or the court is using the opinion to explain why he's doing something or not doing something.

Appellate Opinion

Opinions by judges on appellate courts

Most commonly, the opinions you're going to read in law school are what we call appellate opinions. These are opinions by appellate judges, which are judges on appeals courts. An appeals court is a place you go after something happens in a trial court, the first level court. Let's say, you're a criminal defendant and you were tried. You had a jury trial, and you were convicted in the trial court. You will then go to the appellate court and say, "Hey, there was something really wrong that happened at my trial. Please fix it."

The appellate court will hear your argument and then will make a decision. They'll say, "We agree with you. Something bad happened. We're going to reverse your conviction, and here's our opinion that explains why." Or the appellate court would say, "We don't agree with you. Nothing bad happened or something bad happened, but we don't think it was bad enough to require you to get a new trial, and here's our opinion explaining why."

These opinions, usually they try to really explain the dispute. They often will summarize the relevant facts and procedural history of the case, and then they will reason through the legal issue to really not just say, "Here's the answer," but actually say, "Here's how we got to what the right answer is in this case."

Historically, in the older English system, appellate courts would typically issue what are called "seriatim opinions," where each appellate judge would issue a separate opinion, saying, "Here's why I'm voting the way that I am, and here's what I think the right answer is."

American System

Particularly in the American system, these have really evolved so that the appellate courts will often have one opinion that just represents the views of all the judges or justices that are in the majority that really explain what the appellate court thinks, but they don't have to be appellate opinions. Sometimes you will have opinions from trial court judges who are being asked to, let's say, dismiss a case or do any number of other things in the trial court. Judge will say, "Here's why I'm doing this, or not doing this."

Cases matter in the American legal system because they are often where we look to figure out what the law is. Now, in some areas of law, basically, all of the legal rules come from cases, and this is what we call the common law areas. These are areas of the law where, historically, judges have just made the rules. There's nothing written down, and instead the rules are just going to come out of rulings by judges, and so, if you're trying to figure out what the legal rules are in some area, there's really no other source that's more authoritative than the cases themselves. You just have to go to the cases and figure them out. Figure out what they say, and read a bunch of cases to figure out what the rules are in an area.

Importance of Reading Cases

In other areas of law, there are statutes. There are written rules that formally contain the binding rules of law, but nonetheless, cases are really important here too, because judges have interpreted those statutes and given them content. Maybe the statutes are really short, vague. They're not very clear in a lot of ways, and judges have really gone through them and said, "Well, here's what we think this means."

In our system, you really need to be able to read cases carefully to figure out what the law is. Opinions are often binding law in the sense that an appellate opinion is going to provide rules that a lower court in that jurisdiction are going to have to follow. Appellate opinions often bind future appellate courts. This is what we call "horizontal stare decisis," in the sense that, if you're in the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and you look back and there's another opinion from the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit from ten years ago, the Second Circuit today is supposed to continue following that earlier rule from the earlier opinion, unless a full court votes and makes a decision that that rule should no longer be followed.

In order to understand the law and figure out what the law is in almost any area in our legal system, because it's very much a case-based legal system, you need to learn how to read judicial opinions and you need to learn how to distill them to figure out what's going on and how to draw the law out of those cases. The following lessons are designed to help you understand how to do that.

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