4.3 – Leading Cases Versus Example Cases


Leading Cases versus Example Cases

Another key part of putting cases in context and really understanding why cases were assigned and what to take away from them is understanding the difference between two different kinds of cases you might read in your law school classes. Cases are not really created equal, and what kind of cases they are is relevant to how exactly you're going to study these cases when it comes time to get ready for exams. I want to draw a distinction between what I call leading cases and example cases. Let me try to explain that.

How to Differentiate between Leading and Example Cases

(1) Length of opinion, (2) jurisdiction

If you're reading a case, ask this. Is this case just an example of some established legal rule? Is this case one that could be replaced by any number of other cases, applying some established legal rule, and maybe those other cases wouldn't be as interesting, or there'll be some reason why they might not be as good of a fit for this casebook, but basically wouldn't change anything? Or is this case one that actually establishes a legal rule? Is this a case that you really can't understand that legal rule without having read this case, in particular?

You might think, "Well, gosh. How am I even supposed to know? I'm still learning how to read cases. How am I going to know the difference between these two types of cases?" Well, there are some clues to try to figure out which kind of case you're dealing with. Let me go through some of those. First, how long is the case? Is it a really long case, or is it just a short squib? If it's just a short squib, something that's been really edited down, it's less likely that it's a really, really important leading case, rather than just an example case.

How does the book talk about the case? Does the book note that this case really created a rule? Do other cases refer back to this case? Is the rule that's at issue in the case referred to using the name of the case? For example, there's a famous Supreme Court case called Pinkerton that established a very important principle of conspiracy liability that a number of jurisdictions follow. That rule is always called Pinkerton. For that reason, Pinkerton is really not just an example, it's a case that creates a rule. It's really, really important for that reason.

Another thing to look at is, what jurisdiction? What court is this case from? If it's a US Supreme Court case, maybe a little bit more of a chance that it's really a leading case that really establishes a rule that applies everywhere. A related point to that is that different classes may have more or less of these types of cases. In con law, basically, almost everything you're reading, I'd say, would fit into this kind of leading case characterization, where you're just reading typically a bunch of US Supreme Court cases, each one of which is making new law, changing the law in some way.

Whereas in a common law class like torts, you might just be reading a bunch of cases that are really just examples of more general rules. It's just going to really differ class to class, but in a lot of classes, there will be a mix. There will be a bunch of cases you read, really just because they're meant to illustrate a legal rule, and then there's going to be a few cases that are really big game-changers.

Understanding the difference, I think, will help you understand a little bit this question of why is the case assigned, but it's also going to affect a little bit how you study. You're probably going to want to spend a little bit more time with the case itself if it's a true leading case that changes the law. It might change how you talk about it on an exam. You might really be expected to know the name of that case and to talk about that case by name, whereas if a case is just one of many that you're reading that are just illustrating settled legal principles, established rules, you might be less expected to cite the case by name, to know its facts as well, to be able to compare things to that case, in particular.

Figuring out pedagogical goals of the professor is crucial

More generally, what I'm asking you to do here is approach your reading in law school. Approach the material by thinking about things from the perspective of your professor and the casebook author. Don't just consume information. Think, if I were the professor, why would I have assigned this? What is my professor trying to do? What was the casebook author trying to do? I think you should try to assume these folks, your professor and the casebook author, they really do have goals. They have pedagogical goals. They are trying to get you to learn something. The sooner you can figure out what exactly it is that they're trying to get you to learn, the deeper your understanding is going to become.

Don't just be a passive receptacle. Be active. Try to think, what's the game here? What is this about? Why is this in here? These cases are not just thrown into these books at random. There are reasons. There are good justifications for why these cases end up in the casebook. If you can ask yourself this question, you're going to be that much closer to understanding, even if you can't answer the question right away.

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