法律英语动态

如何读懂案例

2022-11-1 8:12:00 admin 102


Legal cases or opinions are decisions written by the court for publication. In general, these opinions contain the court’s ruling on specific legal controversies. A legal case has a number of predictable, identifiable components that reveal its functions and shape its structure. Successful case reading requires familiarity with these components. In American law schools, students are usually assigned a casebook rather than a textbook. Casebook may be 1,000 or more pages in length and contain several hundred leading cases from the area of law being studied. These cases, which are generally abridged, are used to illustrate one or more points of law. Cases begin with the following important information: the parties, the court that decided the case, the date, the citation, and the name of the judge or justice.


The Parties

Cases in civil law may be divided into two main groups: cases in law and cases in equity. Cases in law are legal conflicts in which the plaintiff seeks damages or compensation for loss he or she has suffered. Cases in equity, on the other hand, offer other types of remedies not offered at common law, such as an injunction (preventing a party from doing something or requiring a party to do something). Cases generally begin with the names of the opposing parties in the case — the plaintiff, who brings the action to court because he or she believes he or she has been aggrieved or injured, and the defendant, who is named by the plaintiff in the suit and who receives and responds to the plaintiff ’s complaint. Law students and professors abbreviate these designations by using the Greek letters П (pi) for plaintiff and△(delta) for defendant. Cases in equity may refer to the parties as the petitioner (the one who petitions the court) and the respondent. After the lower court hears the case and finds for (decides in favor of) one of the parties, the other party may choose to appeal. The parties are generally referred to as the appellant (the party filing the appeal) and the appellee (the party responding to the appeal) or petitioner and respondent.


Unlike the state and federal reporters in which legal cases are published, casebooks do not list all parties in the heading nor do they label the parties. They also eliminate first names and abbreviate company names, for example, Hawkins v. McGee and Palsgraf v. Long Island R. Co. The legal abbreviation for versus is v., which is pronounced like the letter of the alphabet, v. On appeal, the first person listed in the case heading is generally, but not always, the appellant. Sometimes the name of the original plaintiff remains first.


The Court 

Under the names of the parties is the name of the court that made the decision and the date on which the case was decided. When reading legal cases, it is important to find out (1) whether the case was heard in federal or state court, (2) what court in the hierarchy of courts decided the matter, and (3) the date that the case was decided.


Federal or State Courts 

Generally, state have exclusive jurisdiction over state matters. However, not all cases involving state law are heard in state courts. There is a class of cases called diversity claims, in which the plaintiff and the defendant are from different states. Article Ш, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution allows for controversies “between Citizens of different states” to be heard in federal court. To avoid prejudicing a party from one state in another state, the case can, in some circumstances, be removed to federal court. To file a diversity claim, the amount in controversy (the damages or compensation sought by the plaintiff) must be more than $75,000 (28 U.S.C. 1332). This amount is increased from time to time by the U.S. Congress. In diversity cases, the law of the state in which the action took place is applied (used).


Thus, when reading legal cases, one cannot always assume that a case heard in federal court addresses a federal issue. Likewise, it cannot always be assumed that a case heard in state court deals with a state issue. This is because state courts may have concurrent jurisdiction over some federal subject matter.


Court Location and Hierarchy 

State cases include the name of court and state, such as Supreme Court of New Hampshire or Court of Appeals of New York. Federal district cases specify the district, such as the Eastern District of New York. U.S. court of appeals cases name the circuit, such as United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit. The Second Circuit includes the states of New York and Vermont (see Fig.3). Sometimes law students read cases from other common law countries, such as Canada or England. The location in the heading may be well known or may become obvious when reading the case. If not, most English dictionaries have a section on place names. However, sometimes the location of the court is not clearly stated, such as Court of Exchequer, which is an English court. Information on foreign courts can be found in the section on Tables under Foreign Jurisdictions in The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation.


The level of a court in the state court hierarchy is generally clear from the heading, such as the Supreme Court of New Hampshire. New York, along with several other states, is an exception to this general rule because its mid-level court is the Supreme Court of New York and its highest court is the Court of Appeals of New York.


The Date 

The name of the court is followed by the date, such as Appellate Court of Illinois, First District, 1987. The date of the case is important because both state and federal courts may overrule or void prior decisions. If the case was decided recently, it is likely still good law. In other words, it still serve as precedent for deciding similar cases. However, if it is an older case, some research is necessary to determine if the case has been overruled and therefore no longer has binding authority.


The Citation 

Following the court and date is the citation, which indicates in which reporter(s) (publication(s)) the case can be found, such as 84 N.H.114,146 A.641. The names of the reporters are abbreviated. In this example, N.H. stands for New Hampshire Reports, which is an official state publication, and A. stands for Atlantic Reporter, which is published by West Publishing Co., a private publisher. The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation lists the full forms and abbreviations of all reporters in the United States under United States Jurisdictions. The volume number (84/146) precedes the name of the reporter and the page number follows it (114,641).


The Name of the Judge or Justice 

The text of the case begins with the name of the judge or justice who wrote the opinion or decision for the majority, such as Cardozo, C.J. (C.J. stands for Chief Justice; J. stands for Justice or Judge.) Many names go unrecognized by the average law student. However, the names of famous Supreme Court justices, such as John Marshall, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Benjamin Cardozo, Earl Warren, Thurgood Marshall, and Sandra Day O’Connor, and even some lower court judges, such as Richard Posner, may be familiar to legal scholars and students, practitioners, and even laypersons. Per curiam is occasionally found in place of the name of the judge. It means that the opinion was written “by the court” and no author is identified. Per curiam opinions are often unanimous.


The body of a legal case contains the opinion of the majority of the judges, also referred to as the court. It generally contains the issue, the substantive facts or the facts, the procedural facts or procedural history, the rule(s), the holding, and the reasoning. The majority opinion is followed first by the concurring opinions and then by the dissenting opinions. The other components are not arranged in a set order. However, information that provides background for the decision, such as the facts, issue, and the procedural history, is typically found in the first part of the body of the case, while the reasoning occurs later in the case. The issue and holding sometimes occur as a pair at the beginning of the case. The holding is often found at the end of the case as a conclusion to the court’s reasoning.


The Issue 

In the United States, court make decisions only when there is a specific case in controversy. The plaintiff brings the defendant to court because the plaintiff believes he or she has legal claim (cause of action) against the defendant. For the case to proceed, there must be a legal issue or question that the court can remedy. If not, the case is dismissed. A claim that is insufficient on its face (as it is written) is referred to as a frivolous claims.The issue is the legal question raised by the plaintiff that the court will answer. Generally, the issue is stated in the form of an indirect question. Case readers may have no trouble spotting the issue if it is clearly stated in the first section of the body of the case; however, sometimes the issue may be implied, leaving the reader to construct the actual legal question.In the American legal system, issue at trial are usually different from those presented on appeal. This is because cases can generally be appealed only as a matter of law. In other words, the issue has something to do with whether the lower court(s) erred or made an error in applying the law. For example, in a civil case, the judge may have granted a motion to dismiss the case even though the plaintiff had a valid legal claim or may have submitted incorrect instructions to the jury. Law students read mainly appellate cases since they often highlight important legal questions.  


It is possible to glimpse how the court has answered a legal question (yes or no) by looking for one of the following words at the very end of the case: affirmed, reversed, or reversed and remanded. In this final position, affirmed means that the court upholds or agrees with the decisions of the last court to hear the case. It tells the reader that the appellant does not prevail and the decision in favor of the appellee is let stand. Reversed means it disagree with the last court’s opinion. Reversed and remanded means that the court is sending the case back to the lower court with a mandate, that is, instructions to the lower court to apply a different rule or set up a new trial. It is possible that the court has upheld the decision of the trail court while reversing the decision of the appellate court; however, this will not be evident when glancing at the end of the case.


In addition to the issue, a case contains three important histories or stories. The first two are the substantive facts and the procedural history or procedural facts. The third, precedent, is discussed under Reasoning.


The Substantive Facts 

The substantive facts or the facts of the case, which are also referred to by law students and professors as the fact pattern, tell the history or story of the participants in a law suit. Cases on appeal generally contain a recitation of the facts that have been decided at trial by the jury or judge based on the evidence presented by the parties. The fact pattern includes but is not limited to all relevant facts relating to the legal issue. The facts must be sufficient or adequate to prove that there is a legal claim. By reading the facts, an experienced reader is often able to discern the issue, even if it has not yet been stated.


The Procedural Facts or Procedural History 

The procedural history, also called the procedural facts, summarizes the history of the case in the court system. It tells the reader in what court(s) the case has already been heard, the decision of the lower court(s), and the reasons that the court(s) decided the case in the way it did.


Rule(s) 

The rule refers to the specific law or legal principle the court applies in a legal dispute. To answer the legal question posed by the issue, the court identifies and interprets the rule that governs the particular area of law and applies it to the facts of the case. Courts are bound by primary sources of law, which include common law principles, statues, constitutions, and regulations, but not secondary sources, such as model codes, treaties, and articles from law reviews, which are scholarly legal journals.


The rule or the applicable section of the rule may be stated in the body of the case or in a footnote. Skillful case readers are able not only to identify the rule but also understand the court’s interpretation of the rule in the particular case. In addition, they can quickly perceive disagreements between the parties as to what rule should be applied in a particular case or how the rule should be applied.


Holdings 

As previously mentioned, the issue before the court is often stated in the form of a question. The holding is the answer to the legal question or issue. It is generally defined as the general legal principle drawn from a specific controversy. It is also sometimes defined as the application of the legal rule that governs a case to the substantive facts of the case. The legal principle announced in a case may serve as authority or precedent for deciding future similar cases. In the case, the holding is often signaled by the words We hold, We conclude, or We find. (See Reading 5, Briefing a Legal Case—The Holding.)


Reasoning 

The reasoning of the court refers to the court’s analysis of the case. It reveals the court’s thinking on a particular issue. While the holding may give little or no indication of the court’s logic, in the analysis the court articulates its rationale for deciding a case in a particular way. In its analysis, the court may also include other opinions, called dicta (sing. dictum), that are not directly relevant to the decision. Dicta are generally stated in hypothetical terms and, while not binding, may be looked to as persuasive authority.  


In its analysis, the court turns to precedent for justification of its decision. Precedent, the third type of history found in a legal opinion, refers to a body of cases decided over a period of time in the past that have a similar or analogous set of facts as the current or instant case. These cases set forth certain legal principles that the court must generally apply to the present case, that is, that serve as binding authority in the instant case.


Often, one party may attempt to persuade the court to distinguish a particular case or set of cases from the instant case while the other may attempt to show the court how the cases are similar or analogous. In its reasoning, the court responds by providing reasons why it has chosen or rejected certain cases as precedent.


Concurring and Dissenting Opinions 

If the decision of the court is unanimous, the case ends at this point. However, if it is not, it is generally followed by concurring and dissenting opinions. Concurring opinions follow the majority opinion. They are written by court members who agree with the decision of he majority but do not agree with the reasoning. Dissenting opinions follow. There may be more than one minority opinion if each dissenter writes a separate opinion. In addition to arguing for a different decisions and analysis of the case, the dissenter may reveal additional substantive facts not mentioned by the majority. If the majority overrules a group of precedents, the dissenter may defend the prior stance of the court. or, if the majority upholds these precedents, the dissenting opinion may foreshadow the future direction of the court in which these precedents are overruled.


From an abridged version of a case, it may be difficult to know how many members of the court heard a case and how the entire court voted. Judges may recuse or remove themselves from a case for bias — links to or feelings about the parties in the case. Cases before the U.S. Supreme Court are generally heard by nine members. If there are two concurring opinions and three dissents, it means that there is no majority opinion, only a plurality opinion with six members of the court voting the same way but only four using the same reasoning or rationale to decided the case. In cases where there are only eight justices (one justice having recused himself or herself) and the vote is four to four, the appellate decision stands. State supreme courts generally have seven members. Federal courts of appeals generally have a three-judge panel unless the judges in a circuit sit en banc (together).


Future Precedent

The present case, having been decided, can become primary authority. It then serves as precedent for similar future cases unless there is a change in the law.


Syllabus and Headnotes 

Published cases are often preceded by a syllabus, or summary of the case, and headnotes, which are topical references to parts of the case. However, these are generally omitted from casebooks used by law student.


The Restatements 

The Restatements are a series of publications conceived by the American Law Institute, a private organization. The Restatements endeavor to unify common law rules on a national scale to bring about consistency in the common law among the states. They are written and revised with input from legal scholars, lawyers, judges, and other experts in the field. Restatements exist for three first-year law classes — property, torts and contracts — as well as others areas, such as trusts and security. Restatements are presented in the form of rules. Following the rules are Comments with a Rationale, Illustrations, and the Reporter’s Note, which discusses changes and additions to the Restatement over time. A Statutory Note may be included as well.


It is important to note that the Restatements are secondary authority and are not binding on any court. However, if a state court relies on a section of a Restatement to decide a case, that section becomes primary authority. The Comments may also become primary authority. If they do not, the court may consider them persuasive authority.


In Case 2, the court refers to the Comments from the Restatement (second) of Torts in its discussion of the issue.


Briefing Cases 

Case briefs are useful tools for law students. A brief is an organized way to express the material contained in any case. Case briefs are individual tools that students use to better understand and remember any case for class participation and exam preparation. While you will develop your own style of case briefing over time, begin with this format.

1. Introductory Materials — case name, citation, court, authoring judge or justice.   
2. Facts:
   a. Procedural Posture — this is the history of the case through the legal system. Include everything that has happened in the courts.
   b. Substantive Facts — this is the human story or dispute that brings the parties before the court. What is the personal, business or other problem that made the parties seek legal intervention. 
3. Issue — this is the question that the parties bring before the court. Make this a narrow, factually specific legal question. 
4.Holding — this is the narrow, factually specific legal answer that the court gives to the question that the parties ask. State how the court decided this particular controversy. 
5. Rule — this is the broad legal principle for which the case stands. State whether court articulated a new legal principle or ruled upon existing legal principles. Discuss how this case added to the body of existing law in the jurisdiction. 
6. Rationale — this is the court’s reasoning. Discuss how the court explained its decision. The court may use several lines of reasoning. If so, you should explain each one thoroughly. 
7. Dissenting Opinions — discuss alternate reasoning on this issue by other members of the court. 
8. Evaluation — this section should contain your thoughts, ideas and questions about the case.


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