What is a Case Brief?


A case brief is a condensed, concise outline-form summary of a court opinion.  Hence, the term “brief.”  It is generally used for more efficient self-study. That is, it’s easier and more simple to read a case brief than re-reading a 100-page long case every time you want to refresh your memory about a case.   It is also used to present the case to others—again, it’s easier and more simple than reading a 100-page long case verbatim.  In other words, a case brief boils down and distills a court opinion to the key elements and discusses the essence of the court’s opinion.  These basic elements are the facts of the case, the particular legal issue that is at question in the case, the specific legal rule of law that is applicable to the case, the application of that rule of law to the facts of the case, and then the court’s holding/conclusion.  With the exception of the specific rule of law which should always be quoted, the case brief should be a summary and paraphrasing of the court’s opinion in your own words.  This forces you to understand the court’s opinion.   Simply cutting and pasting sentences or paragraphs of the court’s opinion does not indicate to the reader of the case brief that you understand any of what’s happening in the court opinion.  In this course, I highly encourage you to study together regarding reading and understanding of the cases; however ***PREPARATION OF ANY FINAL CASE BRIEFS MUST BE YOUR OWN INDIVIDUAL WORK***.


Model Case Brief Template and Sample:

Case: Name of the case, (and year of the decision).

Facts: Who are the parties to the lawsuit, what is their dispute, and how did they get to the Supreme Court?  In your own words, only include the few important, KEY facts necessary to understand the case.  For example, the time of day a defendant was arrested is usually not important, but the crime a defendant committed IS probably very important.

Issue:  What is the basic legal question regarding what specific provision of law that is to be decided in the case? In other words, the reason the case is in court is because there is a legal dispute—that is, there is a disagreement about the meaning or application of a law or laws. The court thus is being asked to interpret and apply the law.  So what legal question exactly is the court being asked to decide?

Holding: What is the majority’s basic answer to the basic legal question in the case.  Also include the vote count: majority/plurality—concurrence(s) (if any)—dissent(s) (if any).

***Majority Opinion Reasoning:  What is the majority’s explanation why it reached its holding?  You will want to create a summarized, condensed, paraphrased outline of the court’s reasoning.  The reasoning simply consists of two things: the RULE and the APPLICATION (of the rule to the facts of the case):

A. Rule: What rule of law is announced in the case?  A court first must announce a specific controlling principle of law (e.g. the court's interpretation of a constitutional provision, NOT the constitutional provision itself!) that applies to the issue in the case.  This is also the abstract, general legal principle that will be applied to all future cases involving this issue, using this case as a precedent, and it is important to understand under what factual circumstances the rule applies.  Often the court will usually explain why the rule is being created or applied, such as the origin of the rule, or the policy behind the rule existing, and also will often explain why any alternative rules proposed by the parties or the dissenting justices are being rejected.  Here the court usually looks at the words of a constitutional or statutory provision, the original intent behind that law, and public policy arguments. These are not the rule itself, but the explanation of, or justification for, the rule. You must quote precisely the actual rule itself that the court finally adopts and decides to apply.  However, you need not quote any explanation for how the court decided on that rule being the rule, nor any explanation why the court rejected any proposed alternative rules.   The actual precisely quoted wording of the rule itself is also known as the “black letter law.”  The rule itself must be quoted because every word matters.  For example, there is a huge difference between “a” and “the” or between “may” and “must” etc. But the justification and explanation for the rule should be primarily summarized in your own words.

B. Application: How does the rule of law specifically apply given the specific facts of the case at issue?  In other words, given the rule of law that the court just decided should apply, which party wins according to that rule given the facts of the case being heard? The reasoning of the court here should consider the facts of the case, and might analogize or distinguish the facts of the current case to the facts of earlier similar or related cases.  So no facts should ever be a part of the rule; the key facts should appear in the Facts part of the brief and/or in the Application part of the brief. Once you see the court start to discuss the facts of the case being decided, you know they have moved past the rule itself and are now beginning to apply the rule to the facts. You should explain all of the application in your own words, using only occasional quotes of choice words, phrases, or sentences where you think it might be helpful or important to use the exact language of the court rather than your own summary or paraphrasing. (Anytime you quote, remember you need to use quotation marks!) So do NOT simply cut and paste a bunch of sentences or paragraphs of the court's application to make your own brief's application.  That doesn't tell the reader that you understand any of what's happening.  In any case brief, put the application mostly in your own words and paraphrasing, and also make sure it's well organized by summarizing all the key steps in the court's reasoning about how they are reaching the decision they’re reaching.

 Concurring Opinion(s) Reasoning (if any): What is the reasoning of each separate concurrence (justices who agreed with the majority’s holding but disagreed with the majority’s reasoning)?  How do they differ in their proposed rule or application (or both)?  Just note the essence of the disagreement in a couple/few sentences.

Dissenting Opinion(s) Reasoning (if any) What is the reasoning of each separate dissent (justices who disagreed with both the majority’s holding and its reasoning)? How do they differ in their proposed rule or application (or both)? Just note the essence of the disagreement in a couple/few sentences.


Sample Model Case Brief (Should be ONE page (Typed) MAXIMUM!):

Case: Roe v. Wade (1973)

Facts: A woman was denied an abortion by a doctor afraid to violate a Texas criminal statute prohibiting abortions except "for the purpose of saving the life of the mother." The Federal District Court ruled the statute unconstitutional; there was a direct appeal by Texas to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Issue: Does the Texas statute outlawing abortion in most circumstances except to save the life of the woman violate a constitutional right to have an abortion?

Holding: (Vote: 7-2) Yes: The statute is unconstitutional because the constitution contains a right to an abortion.

Majority Reasoning: (Justice Blackmun)

A. Rule: After going through a brief history of abortion regulations, the Court looks at the state interests in regulating abortion. The State of Texas asserts its law banning almost all abortions is furthered by 2 state interests: (1) Protecting prenatal life and (2) the medical safety of woman.  The court accepts these interests, but rejects Texas’s absolute rule because:

                1. There are 2 counter-weighing interests of the woman:

                                a.  The woman has a privacy right grounded in a "penumbra" of Amendments 1, 4, 5, 9, 14, because "activities relating to marriage, procreation, family relationships, and child rearing and education" are "fundamental" and "implicit in the concept of ordered liberty."

                b. The woman also has an interest in avoiding possible severe physical and psychological harm if an abortion is denied.

                2.  Also, a fetus is not a "person" within the meaning of the constitution, so it doesn’t get protection as a person.

                3. Therefore, a proper rule balances the interests of the state v. the interests of the woman: in the early stages of pregnancy, the woman has stronger interests than the state, but as a fetus becomes more advanced, the state interests in prenatal life and a woman’s health grow to be "compelling," thus overriding the woman’s interests. This results in a 3-part RULE (the trimester framework) the court announces:

                “(a) For the stage prior to approximately the end of the first trimester, the abortion decision and its effectuation must be left to the medical judgment of the pregnant woman's attending physician.

                (b) For the stage subsequent to approximately the end of the first trimester, the State, in promoting its interest in the health of the mother, may, if it chooses, regulate the abortion procedure in ways that are reasonably related to maternal health.

                (c) For the stage subsequent to viability, the State in promoting its interest in the potentiality of human life may, if it chooses, regulate, and even proscribe, abortion except where it is necessary, in appropriate medical judgment, for the preservation of the life or health of the mother. “

     B. Application: Here (in this case) Texas’s law clearly violates this framework, because it outlaws abortions not just in the third trimester, but also in the first and second trimesters of pregnancy.  Thus, not much discussion of the application of the court’s rule is needed, and the Texas abortion law as it is written is struck down as unconstitutional.

Concurrence 1: (Stewart): a right to abortion comes ONLY from 14th Am. "liberty," not "penumbra" of Bill of Rights.

Concurrence 2: (Burger): there is a right to an abortion, but the court should give more leeway to medical safeguards.

Concurrence 3: (Douglas): there is a right to abortion, but this comes from a BROAD right of privacy.

Dissent 1: (Rehnquist joined by White):

          A. "Liberty" not found in the Bill of Rights is not absolutely protected because RULE: the correct test for social and economic regulation is whether the law has "rational relation to a valid state objective."

          B. The majority ignores that rule. The trimester scheme is "judicial legislation" and historical legal prohibitions show abortion is "not so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked fundamental" because the drafters of the 14th Amendment did not intend to limit the states' ability to regulate abortion.

Dissent 2: (White):

          A. There is "Nothing in the language or history of the Constitution to support the Court’s judgment," so the majority’s decision must be a "raw exercise of judicial power" that is "improvident and extravagant."

          B. The decision whether to allow abortions or not should be left to the people of the states and their legislatures—in other words, the political process.