Briefing a Judicial Opinion
(otherwise known as creating a “brief” or “case brief”)
When lawyers and law students read a judicial opinion (often referred to with the shorthand word “case”) that decides a legal dispute and provides reasoning for that decision, they try to boil the case down to a single page of organized notes that highlight the key features of the decision. Writing a good case brief involves the development of skill and analytical ability that comes from practice—by consistently creating these notes for every judicial opinion read for a course on Criminal Procedure. When doing case briefs for the first time, it is highly likely that a student will write too much or too little. There is no magical secret for writing a perfect brief. Indeed, individuals may differ in their own preferences about how much information to have in a brief. The important point is that the process of writing briefs will force the student to focus attentively on the details of the case and provide a quick reference to use during class discussions and when preparing for exams without going back to read the entire judicial opinion again.
Judges write their opinions for an audience of lawyers and judges, not for average citizens, not even for college educated members of the public. They use words and phrases that may be unfamiliar to people who did not attend law school. When you see an unfamiliar word: Look it up in an online dictionary!
Look at the elements of the generic sample brief below. When you read judicial opinions and write a one-page brief with essential information from a case, you first need the name of the case, the year it was decided, and the court that issued the opinion. Also note which judge or Supreme Court justice wrote the majority opinion. This will help you over time as you begin to recognize the approach to constitutional interpretation and values of specific Supreme Court justices. Then a very brief summary of the relevant FACTS in the case. Next, you need to formulate the question that is the ISSUE in the case. For this course, the issue should tie the facts to the part of the Constitution (including the Amendments in the Bill of Rights) that is alleged to be violated by a government action. The next element is the statement of the HOLDING. The holding is the rule that is reinforced, refined, or created by the judges’ decision in the case. Then you should briefly describe the REASONING of the majority opinion, as well as the separate reasoning of any Concurring (agreeing with the outcome) or Dissenting (disagreeing with the outcome) opinions. Read the judicial opinions in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Safford School District v. Redding (2009). Write a case brief and then compare your case brief with the very simple case brief presented for the Redding case.