Tag Archives: Black’s Law Dictionary

What are Dicta?

Law school has started back again, and one of the common questions that law students have been asking is how to identify dicta (singular form dictum) in the cases they are reading. Black’s Law Dictionary defines dictum as “[a] statement of opinion or belief considered authoritative because of the dignity of the person making it.” In a judicial opinion, dicta are the statements made by the court about the law that were not necessary for the court to decide the case.

As a new law student it can be difficult to identify dicta at first because so much seems new about everything you are reading. As you gain experience reading cases, it will become easier to separate out the court’s necessary statements regarding the law from those that are dicta. In the meantime, here are a few tips to get you started:

(1) Not every case will have dicta—but when it does, what you are looking for are the places where the court is describing something that is not necessary to decide the case.

(2) Look for places where the court talks about the history of a legal concept. That discussion may help put the law in context (and, in fact, you may find it valuable in your studies for that very reason!), but the history of a statute or common law rule isn’t necessary to decide the issues in a particular case.

(3) Look for places where the court’s discussion of the law and facts does not address the issues raised in the case. If it does not address the issues, that discussion is not necessary to decide the case and is likely dicta.

(4) Look for places where the court is discussing a hypothetical situation. Maybe the court talks about some facts that are not actually the facts of the case, and discusses what would happen if the law was applied to those hypothetical facts—this is a really good example of dicta. For example, in the first few weeks of most Torts classes, law students read the case of Vosburg v. Putney, 50 N.W. 403 (Wis. 1891). In this case, the court held that the defendant was liable for the tort of battery because he kicked (or maybe nudged) the plaintiff’s leg. The facts of the case show that the incident took place in the classroom, after the teacher had called the class to order. The court talks about what would have happened if the kick had taken place on the playground instead of in the classroom. Because the kick did not take place on the playground, this discussion was not necessary to the court’s decision and any legal statements about the hypothetical are dicta.

(5) I always look for dicta last—if you identify the issue(s), holding, and rationale behind the court’s holding first, you will be able to more efficiently identify things that were not necessary to the court’s resolution of the issue(s).

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A 3-Step Approach to Reading Cases in Law School

Image courtesy of surachai/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of surachai/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Yesterday I explained what a case brief is and why case briefing helps you to be: (1) prepared for class; (2) organized and focused on the important law for legal writing assignments; and (3) prepared for later synthesis and outlining of course materials. The first step to briefing a case is reading the case. As we’ve talked about before, law school reading is generally very different from most students’ previous reading experiences. This is because the focus is on critical reading. Often, students are used to being able to read class assignments quickly, skimming to identify what’s important. In contrast, cases are very dense in terms of information, and they require focused reading and attention to detail to unpack everything that’s important. A quick read will leave you without important information that you’ll need for class and on the exam.

With that in mind, here is my 3-Step Approach to Reading Cases for Law School:

(1) Read the case. I know, I know. This seems obvious. But bear with me here—there is a method to my madness. The first time that you read a case, you should just read through it without taking any notes about what the case is about. It is during this first read-through that you should look up any legal terms you don’t understand and make notes to yourself about their meanings. One of the reasons why it takes so much time to read a case, especially in your first semester of law school, is because of the new legal language that may trip you up in your reading. When you come across legal words and phrases that you do not understand, you should stop, look them up, and make note of their definitions. Black’s Law Dictionary is a good resource for law students. You can access Black’s Law Dictionary on Westlaw, and it is also available in print form and as an app for iPhones and iPads.

(2) Read the case again, this time marking important points and taking some notes. Once you have read through the case once, start reading through the case a second time. It is at this point that you should begin to mark important parts of the case and take notes. Some students first underline important aspects of the case in pencil or pen and make notations in the margins of the case book. Visual learners often use highlighters—they may even use a different color to signal each part of the case.

You should also begin taking notes at this point—your notes will become your case brief. Tomorrow, I’ll explain more about what should be included in the case brief. Right now, I want to focus on the note-taking process though. Some students hand-write their case briefs, while others type them. Whichever form you choose to use, you want to make sure that these notes are organized and easy to read, as you’ll refer to them in class and as you begin synthesizing and outlining information in preparation for your exams.

(3) Reread the case yet again. After you’ve completed the process I described above, you’ll realize that there are some things about the case that you still do not understand. At this point, you should go back and reread the case yet again, focusing specifically on the things that you need to work through. You may reread some parts of the case multiple times, in fact. As you continue to work through the case, you will add to your Case Brief until it is completed.

In tomorrow’s post, we’ll begin to explore what you should include in your case briefs. In the meantime, start reading!

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