Tag Archives: case holding

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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Key Components of a Case Brief

Now that we’ve explored how to approach reading cases in law school, let’s focus on what should be included in your case brief: the key components of the case.

The Parties: First, look at the preliminary information found above the case and ask: Who are the parties? One way to identify the parties is by their names. Thus, in the case Smith v. Jones, the parties would be “Smith” and “Jones.” But the parties are also given titles, based upon their roles in the case. At the trial level, parties are usually known as “plaintiff” and “defendant.” In an appellate case, the parties may be known as “appellant” and “appellee,” or “petitioner” and “respondent,” depending on the court. (At the trial level, the plaintiff is the party who brought the case into court. At the appellate level, the appellant or petitioner brought the case into court.) Your brief should note both the names of the parties and their roles in the case.

The Court: The preliminary information also tells you which court heard the case. Sometimes the court is a state court, and other times it is a federal court. It may be a supreme court, or an intermediate appellate court. Include the court that decided the case in your case brief.

The Citation: The preliminary information tells you where the case was published, in other words, the citation. The cases in your casebook were originally published in bound volumes known as reporters. The citation creates a quick way of finding that original version of the case. For example, one citation might be 347 U.S. 483. The case would be found in the United States Reporter, which publishes U.S. Supreme Court opinions. The volume number would be 347, and the first page of the case would be page 483. (Don’t panic if you don’t always know what the citation means at this point—you will learn a lot more about citations in your legal research and writing classes.)

The Date: The final important piece of preliminary information is the date, which is found in parentheses after the citation. It’s important to make note of the date that the case was decided. In many classes, you will trace how legal issues developed over time, and the dates will help you relate multiple cases to each other.

Now that we’ve covered the preliminary information, let’s take a look at the various components found in the text of the case.

Procedural History: The procedural history is the history of the case. Include in the procedural history (1) what courts the case has traveled through, (2) what happened in previous court proceedings, and (3) how the case ended up in the current court.

The Issues: One way to find the issues is to ask: “What are the big legal questions that the court is considering? What has to be resolved or answered?” Sometimes the court states explicitly what the issues are. The court may say something like, “On appeal, the appellant asks us to consider whether . . . ” Or, the court may say, “The first issue is whether . . . ” In other cases, the court may not be as explicit—you’ll have to dig a little deeper to identify the issues. Keep in mind that issues are related to the law. If you’re having a hard time figuring out what the issues are, you can often use the casebook’s Table of Contents, Chapter and Section headings, case introductions, and case notes (located after the case) to help identify the issues.

Facts: There are really two types of important facts: “necessary” facts and “context” facts. Necessary facts are facts that are legally relevant—in other words, facts that the court relied upon in resolving the case’s legal issues. In contrast, context facts are facts that aid our understanding of the necessary facts—they’re not essential to the court’s decision but give a more complete picture of what’s going on in the case. Not every fact mentioned in a case is necessary or provides context. Most cases also contain extra facts that can distract you from what’s really important in the case. This is why you should sift through the facts before creating your case brief.

The Holding: The holding is the answer to the question, “How did the court resolve the issue(s)?” In other words, it is the answer to the legal questions that were asked in the case. Sometimes courts will label something as the “holding” in the case. Be cautious about these types of labels. Often, what the court calls the “holding” is actually the judgment in the case—in other words, what the court did as a result of its holding.

The Reasoning: The most important component of your case brief is the court’s reasoning, or its rationale, for the holding. To determine what the court’s reasoning was, ask: “How did the court arrive at the holding? How did the court explain the answer to the legal questions asked in the case?” You can identify the court’s reasoning by looking for the places where the court is applying law (statutes, regulations, or other cases) to the facts. In your case brief, make note of the law that the court used to answer the legal question(s). Put this law into your own words rather than writing it out word for word—you will understand and remember it better in the future. After identifying the relevant law from the case, look closer at how the court applied that law to the facts. Were there particular facts that the court viewed as important to its analysis? Were there other facts that the court said were not important?

Sometimes the court also applies policies in their analysis of the law and facts. When a court considers policy arguments, it is weighing the potential effects on society of different approaches to the issues. If the court discusses policy arguments in its reasoning, you should note those policies and how the court applied them.

The Judgment: Finally, make note of the judgment in the case—in other words, what the court did as a result of the holding. The judgment refers to how the appellate court resolved the case on appeal, and it may provide instructions to the trial court. Look for words such as “affirmed,” “reversed,” or “reversed and remanded.”

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