A Layman's Guide to Reading Court Decisions

by Jay Johansen
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Introduction

Most non-lawyers do not read court decisions.

This is not particularly surprising. I presume that most non-computer-people do not read computer journals, etc, simply because they are not interested or don't have the time. But many people do not read court decisions because they assume they would not understand a word of the legaleese, and this is unfortunate. Most court decisions are, in fact, highly readable. Yes, they contain some technical legal language and concepts that the average non-lawyer is not familiar with, and this can make them hard to understand.

That is why I have put together this brief guide. You do not need a law degree to read and understand a court decision. All you need do is learn a few fairly simple ideas and the definitions of a small number of terms.

This article is intended to be exactly what the title says, a layman's guide to reading court decisions. It is definately not a primer on law. I discuss only those legal technicalities which I believe are necessary to understand the bulk of what is written in court decisions. And perhaps I should add the usual disclaimer that this is not legal advice. Reading this will not make you a lawyer. Etc etc. Indeed, the author is not a lawyer, but a computer person. Depending on how you look at it, that either means that I don't know what I'm talking about, or (hopefully) that as a fellow layman I can better empathize with the problems of other laymen. (And if someone with legal training or experience finds errors in this document, I would be most grateful for corrections.)

For purposes of this document, I will speak in terms of Supreme Court decisions. Most of what I say is applicable to reading the decisions of other courts, but there are occasional differences which I will not go into.

Names of Cases

By definition, every court case involves a dispute between two parties. A "party" in this sense may mean a person or an organization. Every case is named by the names of the two parties with "v." (for "versus") in between. Thus, if Mr Jones claims that he was cheated by Smith's Used Car Lot and takes him to court, the case will be called "Jones v. Smith's Used Car Lot".

When a person is charged with a crime, one of the parties is the government entity that passed the law. Thus, if Smith is accused of breaking the law of Michigan, the case will be called "Michigan v. Smith". If he is accused of breaking a federal law, it will be "The United States v. Smith".

Sometimes a person will convince the court that he should be allowed to remain anonymous, and the court will refer to him by a fake name, usually "John Doe" or "Jane Doe". This is why the "Doe" family seems to be involved in a large number of court cases.

The Form of a Decision

When a court hears a case, it gives it's result as a "decision" or "opinion". This is normally more than a simple "yes" or "no", "guilty" or "innocent". It is more like an essay on how the court came to this conclusion. In important or complex cases, the decision can be quite long. Some are hundreds of pages.

In courts with only one judge, he writes his decision and that is it. Some courts have several judges. The Supreme Court has nine. In such courts, after hearing a case, the judges vote on the basic decision, the yes/no question. (In the Supreme Court, by tradition, the newest member of the court votes first, then the next most senior, and so on, with the Chief Justice voting last. This is supposed to prevent junior members from being unduly influenced by the votes of senior members. Chief Justice Rehnquist once commented that he doubted this was a problem, as none of the other members of the court seemed to care much what he thought anyway.) The majority wins, and one member of the majority will be chosen to write the "opinion", explaining how they came to this conclusion. If the other judges in the majority agree completely with what is written, they will simply add their names to it. If they agree in general but disagree over certain details, or have additional thoughts that they wish to add, they may write what is called a "concurring opinion" or "concurrence". Sometimes they will agree with the ultimate decision (the yes or no) but disagree totally with the reasoning, in which case they will write an opinion "concurring in the judgement". One of the judges on the losing side will be chosen to write the "dissent", explaining why he disagreed with the decision of the majority. The other dissenters may sign on to this dissent, or they may have different reasons for disagreeing, and write separate dissents. In complex cases in which the decision cannot be reduced to a simple yes or no, a judge may write a decision "concurring in part and dissenting in part", in which he agrees with part of the decision but not other parts.

For example, suppose a court was considering a case in which someone was appealing a sentence of a fine and a prison term. Six judges vote that he should not have to pay the fine or go to prison. This is a majority. One judge is chosen to write the opinion. He explains that the lower court made a mistake in saying that the man's actions violated the law, that really the law did not apply to his particular circumstances. Three others judges sign on to this. Judge #5 writes a concurrence, in which he agrees that the law did not apply but for different reasons. Judge #5 signs on to this. Judge #6 writes a dissent, in which he says that the law does apply and the man should pay the fine and go to prison. Judges #7 and #8 sign on to this. Finally, Judge #9 writes a "concurring in part and dissenting in part", in which he says that the portion of the law calling for a fine does apply, but the portion calling for imprisonment does not, so the man should have to pay the fine but not go to prison.

Occassionally, a case will be complex enough and the judges may disagree enough that they cannot find a majority to support a single opinion. In this case decisions become quite complex, and the judges must look for majorities on individual points.

But why write a decision at all? Why not just vote "yes" or "no"? For the people actually involved in the case, why the judges thought a certain person should or should not go to prison is of little importance -- he's either going to sit in jail or he's not.

There are two reasons. First, for any court other than the Supreme Court, there is always the possibility of an appeal. If judges did not write long decisions but simply said "yes" or "no", then when a case was appealed to a higher court, they would have to start all over again from scratch in deciding the case.

Second, a court decision affects more than just the parties involved. It also establishes a "precedent", which will be referred to by other judges for years or even centuries to come, under the principle of stare decisis.

Stare Decisis

Stare decisis is an important rule that guides judges in their decisions. It is Latin for "let the decision stand". This means that, under normal circumstances, judges will try to apply the same reasoning that was used in a previous case, or "precedent", to the current case.

For example, a few years ago the Supreme Court ruled that burning an American flag is a form of "speech" protected by the First Amendment. You may think that was a good decision or you may think it was a bad one. But either way, if another case were to come along where someone was charged with a crime for burning an American flag, the court would almost certainly rule that, as it had decided once in the past that this was protected speech, that that decision must stand. Even if the judge or judges involved thought that was a bad decision, they would be very reluctant to change it.

The purpose of this rule is to give our courts consistency and predictability. Someone considering going to court can be reasonably confident that if the court has ruled a certain way in the past, it is likely to rule the same way in the future. When you're wondering whether a certain action is legal or whether you can get away with putting a certain clause in a contract or whatever, you don't have to guess and see what happens. You can look at how courts have ruled in the past and be fairly confident that they will rule the same way in the future.

Many court decision are over fairly fine technical points of law, where it is arguably more important that everyone know what the rules are, then exactly which rule is imposed. If you were inventing a ball game, you could make a good game in which players were allowed to touch the ball with their hands, like football; or one in which they were not, like soccer. But if no one was exactly sure whether or not they could touch the ball with their hands, and half the time the referee declared it a foul and half the time he did not, the game would be frustating and unfair.

The drawback to stare decisis, of course, is that by definition it applies equally to bad decisions as to good ones. So bad decisions are preserved and repeated indefinately. (A rule that only "good" decisions should stand would be useless. If a judge thought a past decision was good, he won't have any desire to rule differently this time anyway. If he does want to rule differently, it must mean he thought the previous decision was bad.) This is why stare decisis is a guide and not an absolute rule. If a judge believes a precedent was particularly bad, or maybe sounded good at the time but has proven with experience to be unworkable or unjust, he may reverse a precedent.

Stare decisis is why judges write long opinions. By carefully explaining their reasoning, they make it possible for future judges to rationally apply the decision. Every case surely has unique features. If a judge simply said, "yes, he should go to jail", no one attempting to apply the precedent could be sure exactly what facts led him to this conclusion, what he thought relevant and what he thought irrelevant.

Because of this, when you are reading court cases you will find that they are litterally filled with references to previous cases. Frequently a judge will not offer any facts or logic to back up an argument he is making, but will rely entirely on the fact that many judges in previous cases agreed with him. This can strike the layman as a very weak argument: It's true not because science or reason prove that it's true, but because a judge fifty years ago said it was true. Perhaps most amusing of all from a layman's point of view is that judges will sometimes refer to earlier decisions that they themselves wrote to defend the point they are making now. In other words, it's true because I said so -- ten years ago. A philosopher, scientist, or logistician would find this sort of "proof" laughable, but this brings us back to the reasoning behind stare decisis.

For the technically inclined, a brief word about the form of these references: A typcial reference, pulled at random from a decision on the shelf, looks like this, "Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927)". The name of the case is given first, normally in italics. The "U.S." identifies the set of books in which you could find this case, which incidentally gives you a clue what court made the decision. "U.S." refers to decisions of the United States Supreme Court, and will be found in the Supreme Court Reporter. Decisions of state courts typically have the name of the state (or an abbreviation) here. The "274" is the volume number in this set. The "200" is the page number. "1927" is the year in which the decision was made.

Subsequent references to the same precedent in a given decision frequently use an abbreviated name in italics. In the above example, it would normally be "Buck".

Jurisdiction

A court cannot decide to become involved in any case it feels like. The court must have "jurisdiction", that is, authority over this particular case. The most obvious example of this is geographic: Normally, if two people in California have a disagreement, they could not go to a court in New York. They would have to go to a California court. Perhaps more subtly, if you are charged with violating a state law, you cannot normally be taken to federal court. You would have to be tried in a state court. Indeed, unlike many if not most other countries, in the United States the federal courts can only hear very specific types of cases, which are listed in the Constitution.

Our legal system distinguishes between "original jurisdiction" and "appellate jurisdiction". Original jurisdiction is the authority to hear a case for the first time. Appellate jurisdiction is the power to hear appeals, or challenges to the decision of the "original" court. The Supreme Court has original jurisdiction in only a very small class of cases; it is almost entirely an appeals court.

Most of what we think of as happening in court happens in the original court: witnesses give testimony, evidence is presented, a jury gives a verdict. Any question of the facts or circumstances of the case are supposed to be decided at the original, or trial, court. If, for example, the only testimony offerred at trial was that the defendant was at 103 E Main St at 6:00 pm, then the appeals court will accept that as absolute fact. It will not hear any evidence or testimony to the contrary.

Thus, when you are reading an appeals court decision, do not be surprised to find that they do not even mention what would seem to be the most important question: Did he do it? Instead they go spend their time on technicalities. This is not because they're idiots; it is because it is not their job to determine the facts, that is the job of the trial court.

What an appeals court will hear and debate is points of law. They will examine such questions as: What was the intent of the law? Was it properly applied? And does it conform to the Constitution?

For example, one case I read recently involved a law that said that the government could confiscate wealth acquired by committing a crime, but that anyone who had a stake in such wealth but who had no knowledge that it was obtained illegally would be compensated. So the government confiscated a house which a drug dealer had bought for his girlfriend. The girlfriend claimed she didn't know the money came from drug sales until long after the fact. The court found itself asking: When the law spoke of knowledge of the crime, did it mean, At the time the crime was committed? At the time (in this case) the house was bought? Or at any time? They concluded that the intent of the lawmakers could not have been "any time", because once the government attempts to confiscate the property, surely the person will then know that illegal activities were involved, and so the clause about knoweldge would never have any effect. The point here is that the appeals court did not and could not ask whether in fact the house was bought with drug profits, or when the girlfriend knew this. Those are questions of fact to be resolved by a lower court. All they could debate was the proper interpretation and application of the law.

Appeals Court Actions

There are three things an appeals court can do with a case: It can "uphold" the decision of the lower court, that is, say that it was correct. It can "reverse" it, that is, say it was wrong. Or it can "remand" it, that is, it can say that the lower court made some error and order it to re-examine the case. In my 103 E Main St example above, an appeals court could not say that it concludes that the defendant wasn't there. But it could say that the evidence presented to prove he was there was obtained in violation of his constitutional rights, or was impermissible for some other reason, and remand the case to the lower court for re-hearing whether there was still sufficient evidence to convict the defendant even if this evidence had not been admitted.

Amici Curiae

People or organizations who are not actually parties in a case will sometimes offer amici curiae briefs. This is Latin for "friends of the court". An amicus brief (one amicus, two amici) is information which they believe will be useful to the court, such as historical or scientific background, or the opinions of experts in some relevant field. The idea is that the people offering such briefs are trying to be friendly and help out, though of course in real life they are frequently people who have an interest in any precedent that this case may establish.

Other Legal Issues

As I've said, in appeals courts the debate is normally over legal technicalities.

I've already discussed jurisdiction. If one party can convince the court that it has no jurisdiction in this case, then the court will simply drop the matter.

Other legal issues that come up frequently include:

Standing

In order to bring a law suit, you must demonstrate that you have some personal stake in the outcome. This is called "standing". If Al thinks that Bob cheated him, he could take him to court and demand to be paid back. But his neighbor Charlie could not take Bob to court on Al's behalf. If Charlie has no claim of injury to himself, he has no standing to sue. If he tries, the court will simply dismiss the case and refuse to make any decision.

Likewise, you cannot sue over hypothetical future injuries. Suppose the city of Anytown passes a law forbidding motorcycles from its streets, which you believe violates your constitutional rights. If you own a motorcycle and live in Anytown, you would have standing to sue. But if you went to court saying that someday you might decide to buy a motorcycle, and you might want to drive it to Anytown, your case would almost certainly be dismissed for lack of standing.

Sometimes this gets hazy. Suppose in the motorcycle example you happen to patronize a company which delivers merchandise by motorcycle and just happens to be west of Anytown while you live east of Anytown, and they say that with the new law they can no longer deliver to your area. You could rationally claim to be suffering injury from this law. Whether a court would decide that you have standing is hard to say.

Moot Cases

A court will also dismiss a case on the grounds that it is become "moot", that is, that the court's decision cannot have any real longer effect on the parties involved, usually because circumstances have changed.

Suppose that Smith frequently has loud parties in the middle of the night, disturbing his neighbor Jones. Jones goes to court to force Smith to stop these parties (or at least quiet down). As the case winds its way slowly through the courts, Smith gets a new job and moves to another state. The problem has now gone away on its own, and the court will likely dismiss the case as moot.

Standards of Evidence

Anyone who has ever watched Perry Mason has surely heard the phrase "proof beyond a reasonable doubt". This is the common standard of evidence in a criminal case.

There are three standards of evidence commonly used. "Beyond a reasonable doubt" is the toughest. It is normally used in criminal cases, and means that, while one could always speculate about new evidence that might come to light that would lead to a different conclusion, or could invent some extraordinary set of circumstances that could explain away the evidence, nevertheless you conclude that on the basis of the available evidence, you must conclude the defendent is guilty. (As one lawyer explained it, you could always say that just maybe, invisible Martians suddenly appeared in the room, killed the victim, thrust the bloody murder weapon into the hands of the defendant, and then disappeared just before the police burst through the door. But, to put it mildly, probably not.) The logic behind this tough standard is that we want to be very careful not to punish an innocent person. It is surely a terrible thing if a guilty person gets off scot free. But it is even more terrible for an innocent person to go to jail for a crime he didn't commit.

The easiest standard is "preponderance of evidence". This means that one side is more convincing than the other. If the judge or jury believes that there is a 51% chance that the defendant is lying and a 49% chance that he is telling the truth, than under the preponderance of evidence test they would rule against him. This test is usually used in civil suits, where two parties are disputing over the terms of a contract or who is to blame for an accident. If Smith says that Jones owes him $100 and Jones says he already paid, then an error either way means that somebody is out $100. Thus the court should rule for whosever case sounds more convincing, without giving either side the benefit of the doubt.

Another standard sometimes used is "clear and convincing evidence". This is stronger than "preponderance of evidence" but not as strong as "beyond a reasonable doubt".

Afterword

Well, I started out trying to write a quick intro, and this has grown rather long. As always, comments and corrections are appreciated.

Footnote

The photo at the top has nothing to do with Pregnant Pause. Actually it's off the cover of a Rutherford Institute calendar. But I include it here because the judge in the background happens to be my father. (He's not really a judge, but he plays one on calendars ...) I got the calendar in the mail one day with a receipt for some modest contribution I'd sent, and I looked at it and said to myself, You know, that looks just like my father. Months later my mother mentioned to me that the two of them were working for Rutherford as volunteers and asked if I'd heard of it. Heard of it, I cried, they've been hitting me up for contributions for years ...


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Posted 9 Sep 2000.

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