3.4.5 – Legal Issue


Legal Issue

Legal point of conflict/dispute in case

Each step of this, it's going to be critically important to understanding what comes next. Here, you're going to want to understand what the legal issue is in the case. What is this case about? I don't think you can do that until you really fully understand the procedural posture. As we talked about a second ago, in Jewell, as our example case, the procedural posture is, there was a debate about the jury instructions in the trial court. The defendant asked the trial court to give one instruction to the jury. This is basically what you tell the jury after the jury has heard all the evidence and is going off to deliberate and decide whether to find the defendant guilty or not guilty.

The trial court said, "I don't like the instruction you're proposing. I'm going to choose my own instruction that's going to summarize the law for the jury." Now we're in the appellate court. It turns out, that's going to be relevant. You've got a legal issue in the case. You read cases and they're often asking these abstract legal questions, "What does the statute mean? What does the Constitution require?" One thing I really want you to understand that I think a lot of law students take a while to understand, and the way cases are edited in casebooks sometimes doesn't help this, is that courts don't just answer legal questions in the abstract.

They don't just sit around and philosophize about what's the best interpretation of the statute. They answer legal questions in relation to particular claims by particular people saying, "Something went wrong." If you're in appellate court, someone is always coming to the appellate court and saying, "Something went wrong in the lower court, something bad happened, and I need you to fix it." Looking at Jewell for a second, the very first line of this edited opinion actually tells us what the question in the case is.

You read it, it says, "Appellant argues that it was reversible error to instruct the jury that the defendant could be convicted upon proof, beyond a reasonable doubt, that if he did not have positive knowledge that a controlled substance was concealed in the automobile he drove over the border, it was solely and entirely because of the conscious purpose on his part to avoid learning the truth." Here, the court has made it really easy for us. Where they basically say, in the very first sentence, "Here's the issue in this case. Here's what this case is all about." A lot of times, courts will do that. Sometimes they're not as clear, but in any event, you should be able to figure it out.

One way you could describe the issue is, "What exactly is the knowledge requirement under these criminal statutes and when is something less than knowledge, including a conscious purpose to avoid learning the truth, sufficient?" That's not a very good way to describe it, though, because it doesn't really tie into what actually happened in this case. I like the way it's written here because it tells you the specific thing that Jewell says went wrong. It's the jury instructions. He's saying, "The trial judge screwed up when the trial judge gave these jury instructions." When the trial judge told the jury, "The circumstances under which you could find the defendant guilty or not guilty," trial judge misstated the law.

You won't always have all the information that you need to figure that out, but where you have a case that hasn't been edited super, super heavily, I think it's really helpful, not just to say, "What is the abstract legal issue in this case?" but "What is the specific thing the defendant is saying went wrong?" Here, the legal issue is about jury instructions and whether those jury instructions accurately captured the knowledge requirement that applies under the two statutes for which the defendant was convicted.

If you look at what we covered in procedural history, we know that the defendant was charged with knowingly bringing marijuana into the United States and knowingly possessing marijuana, so two statutes that have a knowledge requirement. Having reviewed the jury instructions, we know that there was a dispute about how exactly to instruct the jury about what exactly that knowingly knowledge requirement really means.

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