Tuesday, April 28, 2009

How To Read A Supreme Court Case

For my lawyer friends, this post can easily be skipped. For others, read on...

Reading Supreme Court cases can be a bit bewildering if it is something that you have never done before. It can seem like, well, legal gibberish. You must forgive it for that; it WAS written by lawyers, after all. (Mark and Andy, don't be mad. You still are, right?)

Every case is different and the written opinions of the Supreme Court have changed dramatically. The court and its role was different in the 1790's and so are its opinions. The people are different, too.

Supreme Court majority opinions are assigned according to a rotating schedule and are therefore written by different people at different times. The personality and legal style of the authors come through in their opinions and dissents. This can be, as ever, very different for different justices.

There are four factors, however, that all Supreme Court cases have in common. Keep these in mind when reading the cases and my posts about them. They are:
  1. A description of the facts of the case.
  2. A carefully framed statement of the issue posed by the case.
  3. The application of the relevant law and precedent to the issues and facts.
  4. The conclusion or holding, which is just another way of saying the court's decision.

Written cases are usually in this order, usually with some mention of the arguments presented in court and the concurrences and dissents following after.

Concurrences and dissents, you ask? The majority opinion of the court is expressed by the aforementioned justice who's turn it is (really). This majority opinion can by joined or concurred with by the other justices. If they join it, they simply agree with the reasoning and conclusion presented by the justice who wrote the opinion. If they concur, they issue a separate statement whereby they usually agree with the conclusion but not the reasoning used to arrive at it.

Dissents are issued by justices who do not agree with the conclusion and see the application of the law and precedent to the facts of the case in a different way. Dissents can be joined by other justices just as majorities and concurrences can.

So, in reading a Supreme Court case for our purposes, don't read it like someone in law school. You are not trying to learn the law in order to apply it in any way. You are reading these cases (well, I am, anyway) for the interest in how the law has developed over time, the social and cultural impact of the decision, the changing nature of the court and the personalities involved in this branch of government.

So, with that in mind, dig into Miller v. California. As I said, it is not boring. The word "genitalia" is used a lot.

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