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How to Read A Case:
The 1Ls have arrived for orientation here at GW Law, and a colleague of mine asked if I would repost my essay on how to read a legal opinion. Here it is: How to Read a Legal Opinion: A Guide for New Law Students.
SamW:
Nicely done.

Just remember 1Ls: 'Ex delicto, ex contractu, this is law.' And good luck!
8.20.2009 10:10pm
Dave N (mail):
I thought it was a good essay, Professor. I wish I had something similar when I started law school.

Three minor points I would add:

1) Don't get worked up over the actual parties in case names. My criminal procedure professor commented that he thought the press coverage of the death of Ernesto Miranda was much ado about nothing--even though he lent his name to the important Miranda decision. The party names are not important; the rule is.

2) Speaking of case names, typically the first party listed by the appellate court will have the "honor" of being the reference point. The case referenced above was Miranda v. Arizona. We will typically call it the Miranda Rule; not the Miranda v. Arizona Rule. The exception is when the first party listed is a State or the federal government. In United States v. Smith, people will refer to the Smith Case. Also different states refer to the government in different ways in criminal cases. It could be State v. Jones; People v. Jones; or Commonwealth v. Jones. Don't worry about which term a state appellate court uses.

3) Sometimes you will see criminal cases that do not look like criminal cases because they will have two last names instead of a state name--something like Teague v. Lane instead of State v. Lane. These cases usually involve federal habeas corpus and the prisoner is suing the warden or state prison director in that person's official capacity claiming he is being illegally confined because his constitutional rights were violated at trial and/or on appeal.
8.20.2009 10:42pm
OrinKerr:
Dave N,

In an early draft, I went into more details about case names and why different conventions are used in different kinds of cases, I ended up taking most of it out because I didn't want to get too bogged down in it so early in the essay. I have mixed views of that call, but that's what I decided to do.
8.20.2009 11:24pm
Dave N (mail):
Orin,

I understand. You can't include anything. But for 1Ls who read your article and then read my comment, I provided a bit more useful information. :-)
8.20.2009 11:53pm
Dave N (mail):
I understand. You can't include anything everything. But for 1Ls who read your article and then read my comment, I provided a bit of more useful information. :-)

Geeze, preview really is my friend.
8.20.2009 11:57pm
Mikhail Koulikov (mail):
One of these days, I'd really like to see someone look at legal opinions and treat them as a particular, highly specific, genre of nonfiction literature. What an opinion says is important, but *how* it says whatever it does is equally so. And a standard litcrit close reading of one might do wonders...
8.21.2009 12:53am
SamW:
For what its worth, I think you made a wise edit, Orin. I almost wish you edited that section more, it was a little anxiety inducing, the what and how to read section was better.
8.21.2009 9:42am
Tracy Johnson (www):
I think you meant "thought" vice "thought" on page 58 in the below sentence:


Words like "reverse," "remand," and "vacate" means that the higher court though the lower court had it wrong.
8.21.2009 9:56am
MattR (mail):
Nearly every professor I have this year as a 1L (not at GW, mind you)has assigned this as required reading. I read it last year before coming to law school, too, and it has been a tremendous help.
8.21.2009 11:12am
Dave N (mail):
I would also suggest to law students that once they figure out how to access their free Westlaw accounts (it's like crack, once you are hooked and in private practice, it isn't free anymore), look up the cases online and read the West headnotes and the case summary. It often will clarify things.
8.21.2009 11:18am
Realist Liberal:
My second year of law school I found this article early in the year (it was the first week of class). I had the students in the class I was TAing read it. I found out that it turned into a tradition. The next year's TA (who was one of my students) had her class read it and so on.

I'm just jealous I didn't see it before my first year.
8.21.2009 1:47pm
OrinKerr:
I'm really happy so many people have found it useful -- thanks for letting me know.

Orin
8.21.2009 3:45pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
It is a very good article.
8.21.2009 5:22pm
CDR D (mail):
Nice of you to offer the article again. I downloaded it sometime ago, and saved it.

Thank you.

You guys on here are great, spending your time to share your expertise with the general public.
8.21.2009 7:14pm

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