Outlining, or briefing, a judicial opinion is a critical skill vital to success in any legal education program. A case outline allows you to condense complex information into a summary that can be used to either answer questions posed in class or to efficiently study for examinations.
Write a statement of facts and describe the procedural history. When writing these paragraphs think of how you would explain the facts to a layperson who is trying to understand the legal problem presented. In addition to explaining the parties and the nature of their dispute, cite facts that are relevant to support both the plaintiff's claim and any defenses offered by the defendant. If the case is from an appellate court, note the trial court's decision along with who is appealing that decision and why.
State and elaborate on the legal question presented to the court. For example, in Roe v. Wade, the legal issue presented to the United States Supreme Court was whether the Constitution gave women the right to end a pregnancy prematurely. Explain the arguments each side offered to persuade the court to adopt its position and rule in its favor. The opinion usually identifies each party's argument by stating "plaintiff argues" or "defendant argues."
State the court's decision and reasoning. The conclusion, or holding, frequently appears at the end of the opinion and is signalled by the words "we hold." The judge writing the opinion usually precedes the holding by explaining why the court believes the decision is correct and may refer to statistics or make analogies to support its conclusion. Include this information in your outline. The rationale should give you an indication of how a court would decide a case presenting similar issues and facts.
Indicate the number of judges voting for or against the decision. While this is not always important, and may warrant only minor discussion in the classroom, unanimous or split decisions indicate how strongly or weakly a court feels about a particular legal issue.
- At first, briefing cases can be time-intensive and frustrating. Be patient. Once you have briefed a few dozen cases it should be easier to digest legal jargon and it should take less time to create an outline.
- Ask your professor whether you are responsible for reading and briefing dissenting or concurring opinions. These opinions are not the law, but some professors may want to cover them in class
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