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1.8: Case Method (Case Briefing)

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    Case law is a significant source of criminal law. We will explore Sources of Law shortly, but for now, remember that when a judge rules on the facts of a particular case, they create case law. Case law is the application of the law to a particular set of facts.

    Case Citation

    Cases must be published to become case law. A published case is also called a judicial opinion. This textbook exposes you to several judicial opinions to demonstrate how a principle of law is applied to a specific factual scenario. The case citation is the series of numbers and letters after the title of the case and it denotes the case’s published location. For example, let’s analyze the case citation for Ravin v. State, 537 P.2d 494 (Alaska 1975). Ravin v. State is an interesting case from a constitutional law perspective – Ravin holds that Alaska’s explicit right to privacy, as enumerated in the Alaska Constitution, guarantees an adult’s right to possess marijuana in one’s own home. See id., 537 P.2d at 511.

    Figure 1.7 Ravin Case Citation


    As you can see from the diagram, the number 537 is the volume number of the book that published the Ravin case. The name of the book is “P.2d”, which is an abbreviation for Pacific Reports, 2d Series. The number 494 is the page number of the Ravin case. “Alaska” signifies the case was decided by the Alaska Supreme Court. “Alaska App.” would mean the Alaska Court of Appeals decided the case. The date (1975) is the year the court issued its ruling on the case. Every court has its own designation, except the United States Supreme Court, which is “U.S.” and stands for United States Reports. For example, in the seminal case Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), the publication is United States Reports, abbreviated as “U.S.”

    Case Briefing

    It is useful to condense judicial opinions into a case brief format. The Ravin v. State, 537 P.2d 494 (Alaska 1975) case brief is shown in Figure 1.7.

    Figure 1.8 Ravin Case Brief

    Ravin v. State, 537 P.2d 494 (Alaska 1975) Facts: Defendant arrested and charged with possession of marijuana. Defendant challenged constitutionality of statute, arguing state violated his right to privacy under federal and state constitutions. Issue: Does an adult have a constitutional right to the purely personal, non-commercial possession of marijuana in the privacy of one’s own home? Holding: Alaska’s constitutional explicit right to privacy protects the possession of marijuana by adults at home for person use. Analysis (Rationale): Alaskans have a basic right to privacy in their homes under the Alaska Constitution, which the government may not interfere with unless it have a narrowly tailored compelling state interest. Here, although the government has significant interests in regulating the use of marijuana, the government has not shown a compelling basis to determine that the use of marijuana – in the privacy of one’s own home – has a present and immediate impact on the state’s public heath or welfare. The Court makes clear that its holding is limited to the possession of marijuana by adults at home for personal use. Non-personal marijuana possession outside of one’s own home may be regulated by the government. Conclusion: Motion to dismiss granted.

    When briefing a case, your goal is to reduce the information from the case into a format that will provide you with a helpful reference in class and for review. Most importantly, by “briefing” a case, you will grasp the problem the court faced (the issue); the relevant law the court used to solve it (the rule); how the court applied the rule to the facts (the application or “analysis”); and the outcome (the conclusion). You will then be ready to not only discuss the case but to compare and contrast it to other cases involving a similar issue.

    The case brief should begin with the title of the case, including the citation. The case name usually contains the names of the plaintiff (in criminal law, the plaintiff is normally the “government”, “state” or “prosecutor”) and the defendant, each of whom are parties to the lawsuit. Be sure that you can identify the applicable stakeholders as you write your brief.

    The next component of the case brief should be the facts. Briefly summarize the facts of the case. Eliminate facts that are not relevant to the particular issue and the court’s analysis of it. Do not merely copy the facts verbatim; not every detail is important. Identify the facts important for the resolution of the issue before the court. The issue follows the facts. The issue is the question the court is examining, which is usually the grounds for appeal. The case brief should phrase the issue as a question. Cases usually have more than one issue. The case brief can state all the issues or only the most important issue. The holding (sometimes called the substantive rule of law) comes after the issue, is the actual case law, and answers the issue question. If more than one issue is presented in the case, the substantive holding should address each issue.

    Example of Substantive Holding

    “Thus we conclude that no adequate justification for the state’s intrusion into the citizen’s right to privacy by its prohibition of possession of marijuana by an adult for personal consumption in the home has been shown. The privacy of the individual’s home cannot be breached absent a persuasive showing of a close and substantial relationship of the intrusion to a legitimate governmental interest.”

    See Ravin v. State, 537 P.2d 494, 511 (Alaska 1975)

    Last, but still vital to the case brief, is the rationale. The rationale discusses the reasoning of the judges when formulating a particular rule. This may be the most important portion of the brief. The court will have examined the facts in light of the rule, and probably considered all “sides” and arguments presented to it. How courts apply the rule to the facts and analyze the case must be understood to properly predict outcomes in future cases involving the same issue. Rationales can set policy, which is not technically case law but still sets precedent in certain instances.

    For most of the judicial opinions we explore in this book, we will focus on the majority opinion. The majority opinion is the controlling opinion. Although one judge writes the judicial opinion, to be the lead opinion, it must have received a majority of votes in its favor. Not all cases are unanimous. Occasionally, other judges will want to add to the judicial opinion. If a judge agrees with the judicial opinion’s result, but disagrees with the majority’s rationale, the judge could write a concurring opinion, which explains why the concurring judge agrees with the result, but not the rationale. If a judge disagrees with the result, the judge could write a dissenting opinion explaining why the judge disagrees. With one exception, neither the concurring opinion nor the dissenting opinion are controlling opinions. Neither set precedent. However, a concurring opinion or dissenting opinion may be used as the rationale in a future case to overturn or change the law.

    The one exception is when there is no majority of judges who agree on the rule. In that situation, the opinion garnering the most votes is called the plurality opinion, and the substantive holding is the position taken by the judge or judges who concurred in the judgment on the narrowest grounds. See Marks v. United States, 430 U.S. 188, 193 (1977).

    This page titled 1.8: Case Method (Case Briefing) is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Rob Henderson via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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