- HOW TO READ A LEGAL OPINION A GUIDE FOR NEW LAW STUDENTS Orin S Kerr Copyright 2007 Orin S Kerr Second Series Autumn 2007 Volume 11 Number 1

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Second Series • Autumn 2007 Volume 11 • Number 1 Published by The Green Bag, Inc., in cooperation with the George Mason University School of Law. H OW TO R EAD A L EGAL O PINION A G UIDE FOR N EW L AW S TUDENTS Orin S. Kerr Copyright © 2007 Orin S. Kerr
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11 GREEN BAG 2D 51 H OW TO R EAD A L EGAL O PINION A G UIDE FOR N EW L AW S TUDENTS Orin S. Kerr This essay is designed to help new law students prepare for the first few weeks of class. It explains what judicial opinions are, how they are structured, and what law students should look for when reading them. I. W HAT S IN A L EGAL O PINION ? hen two people disagree and that disagreement leads to a lawsuit, the lawsuit will sometimes end with a ruling by a judge in favor of one side. The judge will explain the ruling in a written document referred to as an “opinion.” The opinion explains what the case is about, discusses the relevant legal principles, and then applies the law to the facts to reach a ruling in favor of one side and against the other. Modern judicial opinions reflect hundreds of years of history and practice. They usually follow a simple and predictable formula. This Orin Kerr is a professor of law at the George Washington University Law School. This essay can be freely distributed for non-commercial uses under the Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license. For the terms of the license, visit creative- commons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/legalcode. W
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Orin S. Kerr 52 11 GREEN BAG 2D section takes you through the basic formula. It starts with the intro- ductory materials at the top of an opinion and then moves on to the body of the opinion. The Caption The first part of the case is the title of the case, known as the “cap- tion.” Examples include Brown v. Board of Education and Miranda v. Arizona . The caption usually tells you the last names of the person who brought the lawsuit and the person who is being sued. These two sides are often referred to as the “parties” or as the “litigants” in the case. For example, if Ms. Smith sues Mr. Jones, the case caption may be Smith v. Jones (or, depending on the court, Jones v. Smith ). In criminal law, cases are brought by government prosecutors on behalf of the government itself. This means that the government is the named party. For example, if the federal government charges John Doe with a crime, the case caption will be United States v. Doe . If a state brings the charges instead, the caption will be State v. Doe , People v. Doe , or Commonwealth v. Doe , depending on the practices of that state. 1 The Case Citation Below the case name you will find some letters and numbers. These letters and numbers are the legal citation for the case. A citation tells you the name of the court that decided the case, the law book in which the opinion was published, and 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
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This note was uploaded on 09/28/2011 for the course PL SC 101 taught by Professor Web during the Summer '11 term at Pennsylvania State University, University Park.

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- HOW TO READ A LEGAL OPINION A GUIDE FOR NEW LAW STUDENTS Orin S Kerr Copyright 2007 Orin S Kerr Second Series Autumn 2007 Volume 11 Number 1

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