Ways & How

how to brief a Supreme Court Case

how to brief a Supreme Court Case

Technically, the word “brief” can be understood in two different ways. When practicing lawyers are talking about a brief, they are actually referring to an “appellate brief” document, usually containing 30 pages or more, to be submitted to the concerned appellate court. However, when a law professor talks about a brief to his students, he is referring to the term “case brief” which is the breaking of a certain decided case into a shorter version, and that is exactly our topic in this article. Let us discuss how to brief a Supreme Court Case accurately. As a law student, making good briefs can help you immensely to excel in law school. It will greatly help you understand how the provisions of law are being applied in actual cases. Other than that, the holding on the case will be retained in your mind and, in effect, you can easily recall it wherever you are, especially by the time you begin to practice law. In order to make an effective brief, the following guide can be very helpful to you.

  1. Read the assigned case.

    a law student means reading and reading. Read the case once, twice, or thrice. No matter how many times you will read the case, what is important is you are able to point out at least six items:  facts of the case, procedural posture or history, issue or issues of the case, holding of the court, reasoning of the court, and the concurring or dissenting opinions advanced. As you read, try to highlight these items in your case material so that it will be easier to find them later on.

  2. Examine the FACTS of the case. The first part of the brief shall focus on the determinative facts of the case which shall necessarily include the details that affect the holding or outcome of the case. The narration should neither be too long to read nor too short to miss important points. Rather, it must include only relevant facts.

    Identify the parties involved, both the plaintiff and the defendant. Understand that the terms “plaintiff” and “defendant” are used in the lower trial court, but when the case is further elevated to the appellate court, you will encounter the terms “appellant,” or the party pressing an appeal, and “appellee,” or the party defending the earlier holding of the lower trial court. The beauty of using the proper technical terms as the case progresses is to impress your professor that indeed you know what you are talking about.

  3. Illustrate the PROCEDURAL POSTURE of the case. This is mainly about the journey of the case from the level of the lower trial court up to the level of the appellate court. Start from the filing of the case and then narrow down your presentation to the major motions filed and the corresponding court’s actions on the same. Then list the judgment of the lower trial court until you reach the appeal portion. Repeated remands and repeated appeals need not be cited in detail, but just refer to them as interlocutory appeals.

    Your presentation is not supposed to consume much of your brief. Oftentimes, three to four lines will suffice.

  4. Identify the ISSUE or ISSUES under consideration. The issue can either be a substantive issue, procedural issue, or both. The substantive issue usually refers to the provision of law like “whether or not the lower trial court erred in appreciating the hearsay evidence when the concerned declarant was not able to testify in court on account of his intervening death.”

    The procedural issue refers to the procedural error allegedly committed by the lower trial court like “whether or not the lower trial court erred on its summary judgment when there was a genuine issue in the material facts presented.” Observe that the manner of presenting the issue or issues requires either a “YES” or “NO” answer. When you are able to do so, the holding of the case would be a lot easier to present later.

  5. Present the HOLDING of the court. The holding normally starts with a “YES” or a “NO” in response to the issue or issues of the case. You will easily spot the holding in the case if the justice has a clear writing style like “WE HOLD that xxx.”  If not, then you shouldn't be confused between the holding and the dicta.

    On one hand, a dictum is merely a writing style which does not, in any way, reflect the true holding of the court. It is considered authoritative but not necessarily binding. On the other hand, a holding refers to the central and final determination of the case. It stipulates the decision of the court both on the substantive issue and on the procedural issue.

  6. Present the RATIONALE of the case. This is where you will explain “why” the court ruled in that way. Set forth the reasoning of the court on its ruling, and elucidate on how the court applied a particular rule of law on the facts and on the issue or issues at hand. Likely, the justice will cite precedents and relevant cases coming from other forums or authorities.

    If the issue of the case is more on the interpretation of a given statute necessarily, that statute will be quoted. The justice must have properly cited several legal maxims applicable in statutory construction. The very common one is the maxim that says “a law is to be interpreted in accordance with the spirit that gives it life and not on the words that kills it.”

  7. Include the CONCURRING & DISSENTING OPINIONS. A case before the Supreme Court, several judges will hear it. A concurring opinion may concur only on the holding of the case but not on the rationale given. A dissenting opinion is entirely not in accordance with the holding of the case.

    Although this item is optional, it has built-in advantages:  to impress the professor and to have immediate recourse when you are on the hot seat in the middle of a Socratic classroom discussion. When trapped, you can cite either the concurring or dissenting opinions provided in the case.

These are the steps on how to brief a Supreme Court Case which you should learn so you can do a lot better as you go through law school. In every brief you make, always keep a hard copy. You can go back to them all right before the exam to refresh your memory.


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