"How to Read A Legal Opinion: A Guide for New Law Students":
Readers who are starting law school this fall -- or nonlawyers just interested in the legal system -- might be interested in reading my short guide to reading legal opinions: How to Read a Legal Opinion: A Guide for New Law Students. I've posted about this in the past, but I figure a reminder is helpful for newer readers.
Tracy Johnson (www):
Thanks! I always had trouble figuring out who won!
6.5.2009 11:32am
mooglar (mail):
Just to be snarky, I would point out that any literate person can "read a legal opinion." Your guide is actually a guide on how to read a legal opinion correctly.

6.5.2009 11:32am
I think I may need to anonymously send copies to partners who are all too happy to charge clients outrageous sums of money for associates to research and construct arguments based on outrageous interpretations of opinions...
6.5.2009 11:47am
einhverfr (mail) (www):
Interesting. I found your paper confusion in a couple of places (does it just cover appellate opinions? Are trial court findings of fact and conclusions of law included?), but overall I thought it was very good.

However, I would suggest that it isn't just new law students who need this article. Legal commentators at news organizations and think tanks seem to consistently get the reasoning behind the legal opinions wrong. Either this is deliberate to further their agendas or profits or the commentators simply don't know how to read the opinions. Maybe we should recommend it to these folks too?
6.5.2009 11:50am
DonBoy (mail) (www):
The "People who downloaded this paper also downloaded" sidebar is pretty funny right now.
6.5.2009 11:51am
Soronel Haetir (mail):
What I want to know is how do you glean anything from the few incredibly fractured cases where you end up with 8 opinions that have a total of 20+ joins and everyone dissents in part from some portion of the ruling?

Those cases almost make me wish for a PC that just states 'The petitioner wins.. The case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. So Ordered." and wait for a different case to come along that can get a bit more agreement.
6.5.2009 11:58am
John Armstrong (mail) (www):
Anglo-American law has often been judge-made.

You and Judge Sotomayor are just two little peas in a pod when it comes to the courts setting policy, aren't you.
6.5.2009 12:00pm
You and Judge Sotomayor are just two little peas in a pod when it comes to the courts setting policy, aren't you.

Very funny, John.
6.5.2009 12:02pm
Somebody forward this to Harry Reid, please.
6.5.2009 12:05pm
Hawaii Mike (mail):
Doh! - save the keystrokes. Harry himself has admitted that he can't or won't read legal opinions.
6.5.2009 12:32pm
Xanthippas (mail) (www):

Your guide is actually a guide on how to read a legal opinion correctly.

More accurately, it's a guide to how to read an opinion so as not to be humiliated by your professor the first time you are called on in class.
6.5.2009 12:38pm
rosetta's stones:
Nice summary, OK, on behalf of all we stooges, I thank you.

Some question re citations:

The Case Citation
Below the case name you will find some letters and numbers. These letters and numbers are the legal citation for the case. A citation tells you the name of the court that decided the case, the law book in which the opinion was published, and the year in which the court decided the case. For example, "U.S. Supreme Court, 485 U.S. 759
(1988)" refers to a U.S. Supreme Court case decided in 1988 that appears in Volume 485 of the United States Reports starting at page 759.

Are all cases published in the "United States Reports", and is that the sole source you guys use to access them, or are there other working depositories?

Also, I gathered that they're published in abridged form, with dissents and some extraneous stuff often omitted. Is there any complete source for legal cases, including every scrap of every original opinion?
6.5.2009 12:48pm
resh (mail):
Decent outline. Helpful. One question: why does a particular justice (Roberts) become the chief justice? What's the criterion?
6.5.2009 12:49pm
Gabriel McCall (mail):
why does a particular justice (Roberts) become the chief justice? What's the criterion?

He's specifically nominated and confirmed to the post of Chief Justice. A nominee may be a current Associate Justice but need not be; the procedure is the same in either case, albeit if an Associate Justice gets the nod then you have to backfill their slot too.

For example: Rehnquist is an Associate Justice. Burger retires. Reagan wants Rehnquist as Chief. He has to appoint him and get him confirmed, and then also appoints Scalia to take Rehnquist's Associate position.
6.5.2009 1:28pm
Soronel Haetir (mail):
Rosetta Stone,

The United States Reports do print the concurrences and dissents, as well as lots of other materials. Transcripts of introducing new court officers such as an SG or justice. letters of thanks for departing colleagues etc. Also dissents from denial of cert, statements of why a justice chooses not to recuse in a case they might seem to need to, and a huge list of cert denied. Basically the entire work product of SCOTUS does get printed.

The lower courts are not nearly so formal about what gets published, as far as I can tell. Certainly you sometimes (though rarely) see SCOTUS reveiw of cases that were otherwise unpublished. I believe in those cases the opinion is published after the fact in F.Supp though.

If you ever want to see just how much makes it into U.S. take a look at the bound volume pdfs on the supreme court website.
6.5.2009 2:30pm
Can't find a good name:
The United States Reports is a reporter of cases from the U.S. Supreme Court only (or at least now it is; in the 18th century it had cases from other courts also). ("Reporter" in this context is a series of books containing cases.) However, it is not the only reporter of U.S. Supreme Court cases; there are other reporters which are published faster than United States Reports and so get cited sometimes, typically for more recent cases.

Cases from the U.S. Courts of Appeals are reported in the Federal Reporter, and cases from the U.S. District Courts are reported in the Federal Supplement.

State court cases are reported in a variety of sources; in some states there are reporters devoted solely to that state, but in other states the state cases are reported in reporters devoted to state cases from particular regions of the country.
6.5.2009 2:31pm
Can't find a good name:
To clarify my last sentence, all states are covered at least to some extent by one of the regional reporters, but some states also have reporters devoted solely to that state.

So, for example, the state of Florida stopped publishing a series of official reporters of its own state cases back in the 1940s. Thus, Florida state court cases would normally be researched in West Publishing Company's "Southern Reporter," which also includes cases from the Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi state courts.
6.5.2009 2:34pm
Can't find a good name:
Resh and Gabriel: I believe that when Harriet Miers' nomination to the Supreme Court was withdrawn, there was a trivia question here at the Volokh Conspiracy as to who was the last Supreme Court nominee to have his nomination withdrawn.

The trick answer turned out to be John Roberts -- he had originally been nominated to replace Sandra Day O'Connor, but when Rehnquist died unexpectedly, his nomination to replace O'Connor as an Associate Justice was withdrawn and he was re-nominated to replace Rehnquist as Chief Justice instead.
6.5.2009 2:37pm
Can't find a good name:
The trivia question can be found here.
6.5.2009 2:42pm
CDR D (mail):

I'd like to read this, and I remember the last time you posted about it. But the link takes one to a site where yet another registration and password creation is required.

Is there a source where this paper can just be purchased the old fashioned way? I'd be glad to pay for a copy.

6.5.2009 6:56pm
Bill Dyer (mail) (www):
Beginning on my first day of law school, in my very first class (property, as it happened), one of my first-year professors covered the same subject matter that's in your paper -- but did so using the Socratic method in its most terror-instilling mode.
6.5.2009 7:01pm
rosetta's stones:
Nothing wrong with the Socratic method, if it's used as a tool for both teacher and student to learn, as a good advanced education process should be. If it's just "terror-instilling", well...
6.6.2009 10:13am

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