3.4.3 – The Facts


Facts of a Case

Things that led to legal dispute

We now are ready to really start actually reading the body of the opinion, and there's going to be different components here. We want to figure out where things fit, what are the different buckets, because there's going to be a lot of information and this is all going to go a lot better if you know what bucket in your brain to put the different pieces of information in. The first bucket is what I'll call the facts. As you see, this case is going to begin with a lot of facts about things that have happened, but by the facts, I mean something pretty specific. What I mean are the things that happened that led to the legal dispute.

The things that happened before the legal dispute that is the basis of this appeal actually got into court. If you look at Jewell, for example, there's a fair amount of material that talks about stuff that happened, but only some of it is what I'm calling the facts. Think of facts as to why did we get into court? What is everything that happened up until the moment that the legal proceedings started? Some opinions you're going to read are going to have really long facts sections, pages and pages and pages. Some are going to have really short facts sections. Some cases are going to have no facts sections. Some casebooks really like to condense things and you just have the bare legal analysis.

Nature of facts differs on case-to-case basis

It really is going to depend on the case, and it may not be there in every case you read, but you want to at least know how to look for it in case it is there. The facts are often, they're there for a reason. The court that's writing a good opinion is writing the facts in a way to tell you stuff that's relevant, tell you stuff that might actually matter later in the opinion. You won't necessarily know when you're reading your facts section why a fact is there because it might turn out to matter a lot when you get deeper into the legal reasoning later in the opinion, but it might not.

Sometimes judges just write facts sections that are really long and dense and that have a lot of extraneous information, but that's not always the case, and when judges do that, a good casebook author will maybe trim those facts down a little bit. So, you're going to want to read them carefully. I also need you to read them a little bit critically, in the sense that facts are not all created equal. Facts in a case are going to arise in a particular procedural context. Sometimes the court will tell you, "Here's what you have to think about these facts." For example, you might have a case where there was agreement below about what the facts are.

The parties stipulated, "Here's everything that happened and they're just disagreeing about the law," and then the court will just say, "Here are the facts." Other times, you'll have a situation where one side is saying the facts are X, the other side is saying the facts are Y, and you have to just not take everything you're reading for granted, but read, "Okay, here's what somebody says happened, what do I have to do with that?" because that's going to maybe be relevant to some of the legal issues. I know that sounds a little abstract, so let's try to apply that to Jewell. Going back to Jewell, here, what are the facts? In this case, there's a few things that are facts.

We have some things that we know to be true and then we have also some things that we're not certain are true but we're going to treat it as if they're maybe true. What do we know to be true? We know that the defendant, and this is from the second paragraph of the opinion, entered the United States driving an automobile in which 110 pounds of marijuana worth $6,250, and keep in mind this is nearly fifty years ago, so that's a lot more money today, had been concealed in a secret compartment between the trunk and the rear seat, and then he gets arrested. We know that to be true. The way this is written, we know that this happened. Is that everything?

Footnotes often highlight important/relevant facts.

Actually, no, that's not everything, that's part of the facts because the court is going to go on and start talking about what happens at trial, but then, interestingly, there's actually some footnotes. There's some footnotes that relate to testimony at trial, and the footnotes are going to flesh out a little bit in terms of what the defendant testified. This is another quick tip: anytime you're reading a case in a casebook and it's got a footnote, read the footnote because lots of cases have lots of footnotes. A casebook author will usually edit most or all of them out. If they leave them in, it's usually because they thought it was important enough to stay in.

Sometimes you'll find really, really important stuff buried in footnotes. I can show you Supreme Court opinions where the most important thing in the case is actually buried in a footnote. Here, the court has decided to put some of the testimony in the footnotes, but to really understand the details of this case, you might want to look at these footnotes. If you look at these two footnotes, we see the defendant tells a story, and the story is that he was asked by another person to drive a car across the border in exchange for $100. In his telling of the story, he didn't know that there was marijuana or anything in the car, but he also maybe had some real strong reasons to be suspicious.

To understand facts, understand procedural posture as well as court's interpretation of it

Maybe he had seen something in the trunk that indicated that maybe there's a compartment there, but he didn't know and he didn't look any further. Is that true or did he actually know the whole time? We actually don't know. He could just be lying, but for our purposes in this case, it doesn't actually matter because if you look at the end of footnote two, the court tells you, "Here's what you should do with these facts." The court says, "The jury would have been justified in accepting all of the testimony as true and concluding that, although the appellant was aware of facts making it virtually certain that the secret compartment concealed marijuana, he deliberately refrained from acquiring positive knowledge of that fact."

Basically, for our purposes, for purposes of an appeal, you don't always know everything that happened perfectly. You don't always know what's really true. Instead, you are working within a particular procedural posture. In this case, the defendant testified from this. The jury could have believed that, and so that is going to inform our understanding of the legal issues. To understand what happened and the facts, you need to know what the court says the facts were, but you also are going to need to understand the procedural posture of the case, and that's what I'm going to talk about next.

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