3.5 – Extracting the Rule from the Case


Extracting Rule from Case

Rule is broader than holding to be applicable in other contexts

The final step involved in reading a case is what I'm going to call extracting the rule from the case. We just talked about how to read a case and how to figure out what the specific holding of the case is. What is the legal proposition that this case is going to stand for and that would be binding on future courts? The rule is going to be something a little bit broader. It's not exactly the same as the holding, in the sense that you might be reading a case to understand some broader legal principle that will apply in other contexts even if this case doesn't strictly govern those other contexts.

Basically, it's the thing, the key proposition of law that your professor really wants you to take away from the class, and most importantly, for our purposes, it's the proposition that might come up on an exam. The rule that you might want to state back to a professor on an exam that you might want to apply to a particular set of facts on an issue spotter fact pattern. For example, if we're looking back at Jewell, which is our example case we've been talking about, the specific holding in that case may formally be limited to the particular statutes that were at issue in the defendant's prosecution, but that's not why you're really reading the case.

You might never encounter those criminal statutes again in your life, let alone in your criminal law class that semester. You're reading it for a much more significant reason. To understand that, you need to understand where you are in the class and what exactly is the purpose of including this case in this casebook at this time. Why are we reading it at this moment in the class? I'm going to talk about how to figure that out a little bit more in the next class, which I talk about putting cases in context.

I'm not going to get into that here. For our purposes, I'm just going to tell you that if you were reading this case in my criminal law class or in probably most criminal law classes, you'd be reading it in a particular context. You'd be reading it because you were learning about mens rea, which is the fancy legal term for the kinds of mental states that are required for criminal liability. In particular, Jewell is about two statutes that have some kind of knowledge requirement. These are statutes that require proof that the defendant knew something.

Here, in Jewell, what the question really boils down to is, when is something that's a little bit less than knowledge going to be legally equivalent to knowledge because the defendant, in particular, was what we call willfully blind? The defendant basically had some idea of what was going on and didn't take steps to educate himself further. Jewell gives us a rule. It gives us an answer to that question.

If you look at the very end of the majority opinion in Jewell, what the court is really saying is, if the statute requires knowledge, it's going to be sufficient if the government can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that if the defendant was not actually aware of the fact of which the statute requires knowledge, the defendant's ignorance in that regard was solely and entirely a result of a conscious purpose to avoid learning the truth.

You can try to distill that a little bit further, which is under this Jewell majority rule, if you have a knowledge requirement, you can satisfy that with willful blindness, and willful blindness means a conscious purpose to avoid learning the truth, and that's why you're not aware of something. That's one way we could satisfy a knowledge requirement. That's one approach to this question. It's a multipage case, and there's a lot of arguments there, but you can summarize that in one sentence in your outline.

Jewell goes a little bit further than that because it also gives us a second possible rule. We have a dissent from then-Judge Kennedy. He has a different view and he is really focused on the Model Penal Code rule, Section 2.02[7]. The majority, if you'll recall, cites this provision too and seems to say it is relying on that as well, but the Judge Kennedy dissent really zeroes in on some of the specific language and is a more faithful application of that rule. As he articulates what the rule should be, he says, "What you need is awareness of a high probability of the existence of the fact that the government is required to prove knowledge of."

That's different than the rule that's being articulated by the majority. The majority's rule focuses on, what kind of steps did the defendant take? Did the defendant have a purpose to avoid learning the truth? The dissent's rule, which is also the Model Penal Code rule, doesn't look at what you did, it looks at what you knew. It looks at whether you were aware of a high probability, but then it also has this additional requirement that if you actually believe the fact isn't true. Even if you think there's a high probability that some fact is true, if you actually believe it's not true under the Model Penal Code rule, it's not going to treat that as knowledge.

Rules are most important takeaways from reading case

Here, we have this multipage case. There's a lot of arguments, a lot of different moving pieces, a lot of facts, but the most important things you might take away for purposes of studying, for purposes of outlining, are these two rules, these two approaches to the knowledge requirement and how the knowledge requirement can be satisfied with what we call willful blindness. The majority approach, which is about conscious purpose, and the dissent's approach, which is the Model Penal Code approach, which is really about your subjective awareness of a high probability.

That's pretty simple. I'm not going to say that's the only thing you need to know about this case if it's ever in your class, but that's a lot of what you need to know about it. It took us a while to get to that, but you can get there and you should be able to engage in this kind of exercise with every case you read.

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