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PSCI 4210: Constitutional Law Civil Rights and Civil Liberties

Library reserach guide for PSCI 4210

What is a Case Brief?

A case brief is a condensed, concise outline-form summary of a court opinion. Hence, the term "brief." It is generally used for more efficient self-study (it’s easier and more simple than re-reading a 100-page long case every time you want to refresh your memory about the case). It is also used to present the case to others (it’s easier and more simple than reading a 100-page long case verbatim). In other words, a case brief boils down a court opinion to the key elements and discusses the essence of the court’s opinion. These basic elements are the facts of the case, the particular legal issue that is at question in the case, the specific legal rule of law that is applicable to the case, the application of that rule of law to the facts of the case, and then the court’s holding/conclusion. With the exception of the specific rule of law (which should almost always be quoted), the case brief should be a summary and paraphrasing of the court’s opinion in your own words. This forces you to understand the court’s opinion much more deeply. (Harvard)

Model Case Brief Template

Case: Name of the case, (and year of the decision).

Facts: Who are the parties to the lawsuit, what is their dispute, and how did they get to the Supreme Court? In your own words, only include the few important facts necessary to understand the case; e.g. the time of day a defendant was arrested is usually not important, etc.

Issue: What is the basic legal question regarding what specific provision of law that is to be decided in the case?

Holding: What is the majority’s basic answer to the basic legal question in the case. Also include the vote count: majority/plurality—concurrence(s)—dissent(s)

***Majority Opinion Reasoning: What is the majority’s explanation why it reached its holding? You will want to create a summarized, condensed, paraphrased outline of the court’s reasoning. The reasoning simply consists of two things: the RULE and the APPLICATION (of the rule to the facts of the case):

A. Rule: What rule of law is announced in the case? A court first must announce a specific controlling principle of law (e.g. the court's interpretation of a constitutional provision, NOT the constitutional provision itself!) that applies to the issue in the case. This is also the abstract, general legal principle that will be applied to all future cases involving this issue, using this case as a precedent, and it is important to understand under what factual circumstances the rule applies. Often the court will usually explain why the rule is being created or applied, such as the origin of the rule, or the policy behind the rule existing, and also will often explain why any alternative rules proposed by the parties or the dissenting justices are being rejected. Here the court usually looks at the words of a constitutional or statutory provision, the original intent behind that law, and public policy arguments. These are not the rule itself, but the explanation of, or justification for, the rule. You must quote precisely the actual rule itself (but not the explanation for the rule) that the court finally adopts and decides to apply; the actual wording of the rule itself is known as the "black letter law." The rule itself must be quoted because every word matters: there is a huge difference between "a" and "the" or between "may" and "must" etc. But the justification for the rule should be primarily in your own words.

B. Application: How does the rule of law specifically apply given the specific facts of the case at issue? In other words, given the rule of law that should apply, which party wins according to that rule given the facts of the case being heard? The reasoning of the court here should consider the facts of the case, and might analogize or distinguish the facts of the current case to the facts of earlier similar or related cases. You should explain all this in your own words, quoting only an occasional word or phrase.

Concurring Opinion(s) Reasoning: What is the reasoning of each separate concurrence (justices who agreed with the majority’s holding but disagreed with the majority’s reasoning)? How do they differ in their proposed rule or application (or both)?

Dissenting Opinion(s) Reasoning: What is the reasoning of each separate dissent (justices who disagreed with both the majority’s holding and its reasoning)? How do they differ in their proposed rule or application (or both)? (Harvard-sample brief)

General Legal Writing Tips

The following are some basic resources for legal writing:

Bieber's Dictionary of Legal Abbreviations: a reference guide for attorneys, legal secretaries, paralegals, and law students; one of the most comprehensive guides to legal citation abbreviations.

Black's Law Dictionary is most widely-used legal dictionary in the United States. Frequently referred to by authors of legal briefs and court opinions and cited as a secondary legal authority in many U.S. Supreme Court cases.

The Blue Book: a uniform system of citation;  the most widely used method for citing legal materials in the United States.

The Law Student's Guide to Good Writing provides explanations of the rules of grammar, punctuation, and good writing that are most important to legal writing. It also includes exercises (with answers) on each of the topics discussed.

The Legal Thesaurus provides synonyms and definitions for legal terms, an overview of federal “plain language” requirements, and associated legal concepts. This work is useful for distinguishing fine shades of meaning or for finding alternative terms or concepts to use in indexes and databases. can help demystify some of the other citations used in case briefs.

If you have any questions, please contact your Political Science Librarian or your Legal Studies Librarian.

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