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:

  1. The title. The title in criminal cases always contains at least two names. The first name refers to the party that brought the action. It is always the government at the trial stage because the government initiates all criminal cases in the United States. The v. is an abbreviation of the Latin versus, meaning "against." The second name refers to the party against which the action was brought. In Bostick v. State, for example, the title tells us that a person named Bostick appealed a decision by the state, in this case the state of Florida
  2. Appellate cases. Most cases in this course are appellate court cases. This means that a lower court has already taken some action in the case and one of the parties has asked a higher court to review the lower court’s action. Parties seek appellate review of what they claim were errors by the trial court or unlawful conduct by police, judges, prosecutors, or defense lawyers. Sometimes, a convicted defendant appeals. Only defendants can appeal convictions; moreover, the government cannot appeal acquittals. However, many appellate reviews arise out of proceedings prior to trial. Both the government and the defendant can appeal pretrial proceedings.
  3. Appealing parties. The cases refer variously to parties that seek review of lower-court decisions. Most commonly, the appellate courts refer to the party who appeals as the appellant and to the party appealed against as the appellee. Both of these terms originate from the word appeal. A petitioner is a defendant whose case has come to the higher courts by petition. The principal petitions are certiorari, Latin for "to be certified," and habeas corpus, Latin for "you should have the body." Habeas corpus, a collateral attack, or separate proceeding from the criminal case itself, requires jailers, prison administrators, and others who hold defendants in custody to justify the detention of defendants who have petitioned the higher court to hear their cases. You can tell these proceedings by their title. Instead of a government name and a person’s name in the title, you will find two persons’ names, such as Adams v. Williams (Adams was the warden of the prison holding Williams; Williams was the prisoner).
  4. The opinions. Most of the cases, particularly those of the United States Supreme Court, have at least two types of opinions, and sometimes three. The majority opinion, if one exists, is the law in the case. The United States Supreme Court has nine members; each has a vote and the right to submit an opinion. If all justices participate, five, a majority, can make the law. If the five agree to both the reasoning and the judgment or decision, the opinion is called a majority opinion. Sometimes, justices agree with the decision, or result, in the case, but they do not agree with the reasons for the decision. They write separate, concurring opinions, giving their own reasons for the decision.
  5.     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 court’s 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 majority’s and the concurring justice’s 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 government’s position and the defendant’s 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.