How to Read, Analyze, and Find Cases
Throughout this course, you will read excerpts of cases from the United States Supreme Court. Keep the following points in mind when you read the case excerpts:
If a majority of the justices agree with a result in the case but they cannot agree on the reasons for the result, the opinion with the reasoning agreed to by the largest number of justices is called a plurality opinion. Suppose, for example that seven justices agree with the result and four give one set of reasons, three give another set of reasons, and two dissent. The opinion to which the four subscribe is the plurality opinion. If justices do not agree with the courts decision, whether plurality or majority, they can vote against the decision and write their own dissenting opinions explaining why they do not agree with either the reasoning, the result, or both. Often, the dissenting opinions point to the future; many majority opinions of today are based on dissents from the past. The late Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes once said a dissent should be "an appeal to the brooding spirit of the law, to the intelligence of a future day."
The conflicting arguments and reasoning in the majority, plurality, concurring, and dissenting opinions will challenge you to think about the issues in the cases because, most of the time, all of the justices convincingly argue their views of the case. First, the majoritys and the concurring justices arguments will convince you; then, the dissent will lead you to the opposite conclusion. This interplay teaches you an important point: Plausible arguments support both the governments position and the defendants position in most cases. Reasonable people do disagree!
You will notice that all of the arguments in the majority, concurring, and dissenting opinions refer frequently to other cases that the court in this case or some other court has decided in the past. The prior cases are called precedent. The judges draw upon precedent to support their decisions because of the doctrine of stare decisis. The doctrine requires that once courts have decided cases, these prior decisions (precedent) bind later courts to follow them. The doctrine applies only to the prior decisions of their own court or courts superior to them in their own jurisdiction (the geographical area or the subject matter over which the court has the authority to make decisions).
Supreme Court Justice and respected judicial philosopher Benjamin Cardozo once said about precedent and the doctrine of stare decisis: "It is easier to follow the beaten track than it is to clear another. In doing this, I shall be treading in the footsteps of my predecessors, and illustrating the process that I am seeking to describe, since the power of precedent, when analyzed, is the power of the beaten path."
Of course, doing things as we have done them, although comfortable, is not always right or good. Sometimes it also becomes uncomfortable. When that happens, we change, often reluctantly, and do things differently; these changes themselves become guides to future action. So, too, with legal precedent. Courts may change precedent, although they do so reluctantly. Courts, like individuals in ordinary life, do not like to change, particularly when it requires that they admit they were wrong. Instead, when courts wish to change, they will do so by distinguishing cases. This means that a court decides that a prior decision does not apply to the current case because the facts are different. For example, the rule governing the right to counsel in cases punishable by death need not be the same as the rule governing the right to counsel in a case involving a petty misdemeanor punishable by a fine.