How to read a Judicial Opinion
I. What’s in a Judicial Opinion? Judicial opinions (also known as legal opinions, legal decisions, or cases) are written decisions authored by judges explaining how they resolved a particular legal dispute and explaining their reasoning.
An opinion tells the story of the case: what the case is about, how the court is resolving the case, and why. Most legal opinions follow a simple formula that will seem odd to you at first, but will quickly become second nature. In this section, I’ll take you through the basic formula. Let’s start with the preliminary stuff before the body of the opinion. This part isn’t very important in most cases, but it’s helpful to know anyway.
The Caption: The caption is the title of the case, such as Brown v. Board of Education, or Miranda v. Arizona. In most cases, the caption reflects the last names of the two parties to the dispute, and it tells you who was involved in the case. If Ms. Smith sues Mr. Jones, the case caption may be Smith v. Jones (or, depending on the court, Jones v. Smith). In a criminal case, the government brings the case, and the government itself is listed as a party. If the federal government charges Sam Jones with a crime, for example, the case caption would be United States v. Jones.
The Case Citation: Underneath the case name, you will find a legal citation that tells you the name of the court that decided the case, the law book in which the opinion was published (and therefore can be found), and also the year in which the court decided the case. For example, “U.S. Supreme Court, 485 U.S. 759 (1988)” refers to a U.S. Supreme Court case decided in 1988 that appears in Volume 485 of the United States Reports, starting at page 759. 1 Plaintiff is a French word, and its use in American law is a holdover from the Norman conquest of the Saxons in 1066 in what is today England. The Normans spoke French: the Saxons spoke Old English. For several centuries after the French-speaking Normans took over England, lawyers and judges in English courts spoke mostly in law French. When the American colonies inherited the English legal system, we also inherited this French tradition. Many of the distinctive legal words you will learn in your first year of law school are French in origin. Examples include: plaintiff, defendant, tort, contract, crime, suit, judge, attorney, court, verdict, allegation, party, plead, damages, appeal, assault, felony, larceny, counsel, evidence, arrest, and jury. So, if you don’t like legalese, blame it on William the Conqueror.
The Author of the Opinion: The next bit of information is the name of the judge who authored the opinion. In most cases, the opinion will simply state a last name, followed by the initial “J.” No, judges don’t all have the first initial “J”; the letter stands for “Judge” or “Justice,” depending on the court. For example, “Hand, J.” refers to Judge Hand, and “Holmes, J.” is Justice Holmes. In those jurisdictions where the judges are not called “judges,” you may see a different initial. For example, some courts call their judges “Chancellors,” so the initial will be a “C” instead of a “J.” You will also see variations like “C.J.” for Chief Judge, “V.C.” for Vice Chancellor, etc. On occasion, the opinion will have the Latin phrase per curiam in place of the judge’s name. This phrase means “by the court,” and generally means that the opinion reflects a common view held by all of the court’s judges, rather than the writings of a single judge. Okay, enough of the preliminary stuff. Let’s get to the body of the opinion.
The Facts of the Case: The first part of the body of the opinion is usually devoted to presenting the facts of the case. In other words, what happened? Surprisingly, there are no particular rules for what a judge must include in this section. Sometimes the fact sections are long, and other times they are short; sometimes they are clear and accurate, and other times they are vague or incomplete. Typically, the facts tell you the judge’s understanding of the case and what the judge thought was an important aspect of the case that helped the judge reach the decision. The “facts” of a case consist mostly of the events that occurred before the legal case was filed in court, and that led to the filing of the case. For example, the facts might be that A pulled out a gun and shot B, or that A agreed to give B $100 and then changed her mind. However, most opinions also include a section on the procedural history of the case: that is, what happened in the case after the case was filed in court.
The procedural history usually consists of various motions, hearings, trials, and proceedings that went on in the case before the court that is writing the opinion was asked to resolve the dispute at issue. You should pay very close attention to the procedural history when you read cases for your civil procedure class (note the word “procedure”); generally speaking, it is less important when you read a case for your other classes. Some opinions may make your life a bit difficult by calling the parties to a case by special legal names, such as appellant, appellee, petitioner, respondent, plaintiff, defendant, and the like.
An appeal is a legal proceeding before the higher court to review the decision of the original court. The original court is known as the trial court (because that’s where the trial occurs, if there is one), and the higher court is known as the appellate or appeals court. A single judge presides over the trial court proceedings; however, appellate cases are decided by panels of several judges.
For example, in the Federal court system, a single trial judge known as a District Court judge oversees the trial stage, and cases can then be appealed to the next higher court, the Court of Appeals, where cases are decided by panels of three judges known as Circuit Court judges. Finally, cases can then be appealed from the Court of Appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court, where cases are decided by nine judges. At the Supreme Court, the judges are called Justices, not Judges. During the proceedings before the higher court, the party that lost at the original court ordinarily is called the appellant – that is, the one bringing the appeal – and the party that won is known as the appellee (accent on the last syllable, by the way) – the party whose victory has been appealed. Some older opinions may refer to the appellant as the “plaintiff in error” and the appellee as the “defendant in error.”
Finally, for historical reasons, some courts– including the U.S. Supreme Court– label an appeal as a “petition,” and require the losing party to petition the higher court for relief. In these cases, the party that lost before the lower court is called the petitioner, and the party that won before the lower court is called the respondent (that is, the one who appears before the higher court to respond to the losing party’s petition). It’s all somewhat confusing, but you’ll get used to it in time.
The Law of the Case: After the opinion has presented the facts, it will then discuss the law. This section of the opinion describes the legal principles that the judge will use to decide the case and reach a particular outcome. In many cases, the law is presented in two stages: first the opinion will discuss the general principles of law that are relevant to the case given its facts, and next the court will apply the law to the facts and reach the court’s outcome. As you read the law section of the opinion, you should think about what source of law the court is using to resolve the dispute before it.
Finally, cases that you read in civil procedure will mostly interpret statutory law and the Constitution. You should also look out for the method (or methods) of reasoning that the court offers to justify its decision. For example, courts may justify their decision on grounds of public policy. This is particularly likely in common law cases: the idea here is that the court believes that the legal rule it adopts is a good rule because it will lead to better results than any other rule. Courts may also justify their decisions based on the court’s understanding of the narrow function of the judiciary. When a case is governed by a statute, for example. courts may conclude that a result is required because that is what the legislature’s statute says, no matter what the court thinks would be the best rule. Similarly, when past courts have already answered similar questions before, a court may conclude that it is required to reach a particular result because it is bound by the past precedents. This is an application of the judicial practice of stare decisis, an abbreviation of a Latin phrase meaning “That which has been already decided should remain settled.” Other courts will rely on morality, fairness, or notions of justice to justify their decisions.
The Disposition: The disposition usually appears at the end of the main opinion, and tells you what action the court is taking with the case. For example, an appeals court may affirm the lower court decision, upholding it; or it may reverse the decision, overturning it, and remand the case, sending it back to the lower court for further proceedings. For now, you should keep in mind that when a higher court affirms it means that the lower court had it right (in result, if not in reasoning). Words like reverse, remand, and vacate means that the higher court though the lower court had it wrong.
Concurring and/or Dissenting Opinions. Concurring and dissenting opinions (a.k.a. “concurrences” and “dissents”) are opinions by judges who did not see entirely eye-to-eye with the other judges of the court, and wish to express a slightly or even dramatically different view of the case. In general, a concurring opinion is an opinion by a judge who would have reached the same result as the majority, but for a different reason. Dissenting opinions are opinions by judges who disagree with the majority’s result entirely. In most cases, dissenting opinions try to persuade the reader that the majority’s decision was simply incorrect. -5- You probably won’t believe me at first, but concurrences and dissents are very important. You need to read them carefully. When they’re not important, concurrences and dissents usually are edited out by casebook authors just to keep the case from being too long. (more)