Reading Court Cases Guide

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Reading Court Cases Guide

One of the first things you must do when reading and briefing court cases is read the case in its entirety. During the reading of the case, you should make note of what you believe the important facts could be. You cannot brief a case until you have read the entire case, as you do not know what the issues may be.

After you have read the case you will need to break it up into sections to fully comprehend the case. The headings we use for these sections are:
1. Facts

2. Procedural history

3. Issue

4. Holding or Decision

5. Reasoning

6. Rule of Law

7. Concurrence and Dissent (if applicable)

The facts of the case are probably the most important aspect of a legal case. If you do not understand the facts, you cannot understand the legal issues the case is presenting. It is important to keep your summary of the facts concise while at the same time being thorough. This takes practice. While it may seem simple, many people have difficulty distinguishing important facts from irrelevant facts. The fact that the defendant is a 33 year-old black male who was beaten to close to death by police officers may be very important if the case is about the use of deadly force by police officers and how the police discriminate between blacks and whites. However, if the case is about an illegal search and seizure of this 33 year-old black male, his age, race and the fact that officers beat him may not be as relevant.

Procedural History:

Some professors will have you discuss the procedural history within the facts section. However, we will discuss it as a separate component.

The procedural history is very important in order to understand the holding (decision) of the case. You should ask yourself how did the case get to the appellate level? All the cases you will read in your textbooks will have already been decided at least once by a lower court.
In order to understand the procedural history you need to know that most state systems and the federal system have three different courts. The lowest court is the trial court. You will not be reading any decisions from the trial courts. The intermediate courts are called the appellate courts or courts of appeal. You will encounter some court decisions from appellate courts. The court decisions you will most likely encounter are from the Supreme Courts. This can either be the State Supreme Court or the U.S. Supreme Court.
There is one state (New York) that names their lowest courts, intermediate courts and highest courts differently than the rest of the states. It is important to keep this in the back of your mind while reading and briefing cases. Whenever you encounter a case that originated in New York, you need to know that their highest court is actually called the Court of Appeals and their intermediate court is called the Supreme Court.
As you begin reading a case, it will usually tell you under the title of the case in what court the case has been decided. Always take note of this first, as this will help you figure out the procedural history.
Some cases have a very short procedural history. These cases start at the trial court level and were immediately heard by the Supreme Court of the state. Other cases have very long procedural histories. The cases that you read from the U.S. Supreme Court could have started in the state trial court, then appealed to the state appellate court, subsequently appealed to the state supreme court and then be granted certiorari in the U.S. Supreme Court. In cases such as this, it is very important that you know what each individual court held.

The Issue of the case is usually fairly easy to spot. It is defined as the legal issue raised on appeal before the court. This should always be phrased in the form of a question. An example of an issue would be: May a police officer enter a home to search when he hears someone yelling for help?

Holding or Decision:

This is the answer to the question you posed in the issue. This is what the appellate court or Supreme Court decided. It is usually answered very briefly with a “yes” or a “no.” In addition, you should write in the holding what the court did to the lower court’s judgment: affirmed, reversed, or remanded or reversed and remanded.

This is why it is very important to know at what stage in the appellate procedure the case is. If it is on direct appeal from the State trial court, it is easy to determine what the holding is. However, you can also be dealing with a case that has already been reversed once or twice and is now in the U.S. Supreme Court. If the Court of Appeals reversed a decision of the trial court and the Supreme Court now affirms, you need to realize that the Supreme Court is affirming the Appellate Court’s ruling, not the trial court’s ruling.


This is a brief synopsis of why the court decided the way it did. It often traces the history of the particular law at issue. In the reasoning the court often cites other cases, legal precedent, or explores legislative intent to explain and justify it’s holding. The court uses legal analysis to apply the rule of law. In the reasoning the court will also use it’s own interpretation of a rule of law to support its’ conclusion.

The reasoning also elaborates on the rule of law. While the rule of law is often only one or two sentences, you can elaborate on the rule of law in the reasoning. The sample brief below gives you an example of elaborating on the rule of law instead of explaining how the judges reached their decision.
Rule of Law:

This is a rule or principle of law that will either affirm present laws or establish a new law. If the answer to the holding is “yes,” the rule of law will quite often be a restatement of the Issue in the form of a statement instead of a question.

Concurrence and Dissent:

Quite often, not all the judges agree on the holding and rule of law that the case establishes. Other times, there are judges who do agree on the holding and the rule of law, however, they do not agree with the reasoning. Whenever there are judges who do not agree with the holding or who do not reach their holding through the same reasoning as the majority opinion, they will write a separate opinion. It is important to briefly summarize these positions, as today’s dissenting opinions by the minority members of the court may be tomorrow’s majority opinion. A famous example of where a dissenting opinion paved the way for a majority opinion is Justice Harlan’s dissenting opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson in which he held that the constitution is colorblind and that all citizens are equal before the law. Justice Harlan argued for the Separate but Equal Doctrine to be struck down as unconstitutional, which was eventually achieved 58 years later in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education.

Sample Case Brief
Miranda v. Arizona


This case actually deals with four separate cases: Miranda v. Arizona, Vignera v. New York, Westover v. U.S., and California v. Stewart. In each of these four cases, officers, detectives, or a prosecuting attorney questioned the defendants, who were in custody, in a room where they were cut off from the outside world. None of the defendants were given full and effective warnings of their rights before the interrogation began. All four cases resulted in oral confessions.

Ernesto Miranda was arrested for kidnapping and rape. He was identified by the complainant and taken to Interrogation Room No. 2. He was subsequently questioned by two police officers without being advised that he had the right to have an attorney present. After two hours the police obtained a written confession signed by Miranda.

At trial, the written confession was admitted into evidence over the objection of Miranda's attorney. The jury found Miranda guilty of kidnapping and rape. He was sentenced to 20 to 30 years on each count.


Miranda appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court of Arizona, which held that Miranda's rights were not violated in obtaining the confession and his conviction was affirmed. Miranda subsequently appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted certiorari.


Does the police practice of interrogating individuals without informing them of their right to counsel and their protection against self-incrimination violate the Fifth Amendment?

Holding or Decision:

Yes. The Ruling of the Arizona Supreme Court was reversed and remanded.


The prosecution cannot use statements, exculpatory or inculpatory, stemming from "custodial interrogation" of the defendant unless it is shown that procedural safeguards have been applied to protect persons against self-incrimination. Custodial interrogation means questioning someone after a person has been taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in a significant way.

To protect one's Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination the following warnings must be given: (1) that defendant has a right to remain silent, (2) that anything defendant says may be used against him in a court of law; (3) that defendant has the right to the presence of an attorney; and (4) that if defendant cannot afford an attorney, he has the right to have one appointed. The privilege against self-incrimination applies only to interrogation initiated by the police.

It does not matter whether the defendant knows of his rights or not; the police must still warn him. The object of these procedural safeguards is to insure that the person makes use of his privilege against self-incrimination based on real understanding and knowledge of the consequences of what he chooses to do.
Waiver of the privilege may not be presumed from silence after a defendant has been warned of his rights.

For the waiver to be valid, the following conditions must be met:

(1) The defendant must expressly articulate a waiver.
(2) Police cannot trick the defendant into a waiver.
(3) The defendant can withdraw a waiver once given.
(a) The defendant's privilege is a continuous one; once it has been relinquished it can be reasserted at any time.
(b) At any point a defendant asks for counsel, the questioning must stop until the defendant's lawyer arrives.
(4) It is unconstitutional to persuade a defendant not to withdraw his waiver.
(5) If the interrogation continues without the presence of counsel, a heavy burden rests on the state to show that the defendant knowingly and intelligently waived his rights to counsel and to remain silent.

There can be no admissions by silence when the defendant is in custody.

Rule of Law:

Prosecutors may not use statements obtained during a custodial interrogation of defendants unless they can demonstrate the defendants were given procedural safeguards "effective to secure the privilege against self-incrimination."

”The police practice of interrogating individuals without informing them of their right to counsel and their protection against self-incrimination violates the Fifth Amendment.”


The majority's arbitrary Fifth Amendment rule is unnecessary and its effect unpredictable (Clark, J.).

The new rule does not protect against police brutality or other overt coercion; it merely discourages any confession at all. Miranda himself confessed in a short time without any force, threats, or promises. The new rule is not supported by history or the language of the Fifth Amendment itself. The Court has simply made new law and policy without an adequate empirical basis (Harlan, Stewart, White, JJ.).

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