How to Read a Legal Opinion: A Guide for Law Students

Topics: Common law, Law, Case law Pages: 13 (4543 words) Published: March 14, 2011

Orin S. Kerr

Copyright © 2007 Orin S. Kerr

Second Series • Autumn 2007

Volume 11 • Number 1

Published by The Green Bag, Inc., in cooperation with the George Mason University School of Law.

Electronic copy available at:


Electronic copy available at:



Orin S. Kerr†
This essay is designed to help new law students prepare for the first few weeks of class. It explains what judicial opinions are, how they are structured, and what law students should look for when reading them.



hen two people disagree and that disagreement leads to a lawsuit, the lawsuit will sometimes end with a ruling by a judge in favor of one side. The judge will explain the ruling in a written document referred to as an “opinion.” The opinion explains what the case is about, discusses the relevant legal principles, and then applies the law to the facts to reach a ruling in favor of one side and against the other. Modern judicial opinions reflect hundreds of years of history and practice. They usually follow a simple and predictable formula. This

Orin Kerr is a professor of law at the George Washington University Law School. This essay can be freely distributed for non-commercial uses under the Creative Commons AttributionNonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license. For the terms of the license, visit 11 GREEN BAG 2D 51  Electronic copy available at:

Orin S. Kerr  section takes you through the basic formula. It starts with the introductory materials at the top of an opinion and then moves on to the body of the opinion. The Caption  The first part of the case is the title of the case, known as the “caption.” Examples include Brown v. Board of Education and Miranda v. Arizona. The caption usually tells you the last names of the person who brought the lawsuit and the person who is being sued. These two sides are often referred to as the “parties” or as the “litigants” in the case. For example, if Ms. Smith sues Mr. Jones, the case caption may be Smith v. Jones (or, depending on the court, Jones v. Smith). In criminal law, cases are brought by government prosecutors on behalf of the government itself. This means that the government is the named party. For example, if the federal government charges John Doe with a crime, the case caption will be United States v. Doe. If a state brings the charges instead, the caption will be State v. Doe, People v. Doe, or Commonwealth v. Doe, depending on the practices of that state.1 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. The Author of the Opinion  The next information is the name of the judge who wrote the opinion. Most opinions assigned in law school were issued by courts 1

English criminal cases normally will be Rex v. Doe or Regina v. Doe. Rex and Regina aren’t the victims: the words are Latin for “King” and “Queen.” During the reign of a King, English courts use “Rex”; during the reign of a Queen, they switch to “Regina.” 52  11 GREEN BAG 2D 

How to Read a Legal Opinion  with multiple judges. The name tells you which judge wrote that particular opinion. In older cases, the opinion often simply states a last name followed by the initial “J.” No, judges don’t all have the first initial “J.” The letter stands...
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