Court Cases for Non-Lawyers - A Primer

Discover a useful tool to learn how to read cases

Weekday mornings start with a long walk. I’m self-employed and my schedule allows me to balance my professional interests (taxes, tax administration, tax policy) with routines that are healthful, for lack of a better word.

The walk itself feeds my body—which just among us friends is several pounds heavier than it should be. The sights and sounds (often one of my favorite podcasts) feed my soul.

Which brings us to today’s topic, how to read a legal opinion. At first blush, this appears a little orthogonal for a tax blog, but bear with me (and remember *everything* has a tax angle).

If someone had told me 15 years ago how much time I would spend in pursuit of competence in my day job reading legal opinions, I might have thought twice about my career move. Well, to be honest (or TBH as I’m told the kids are saying these days) that’s not true. I would have been better, however, and more efficient at it.

Still, one of my favorite podcasts is hosted by two well-read and approachable Harvard Law graduates who discuss law, culture, religion, and society in a sober and elevated manner. Through the pod, I found this gem of an article by Orin Kerr (alas, no relation as far as I know), called “How to Read A Legal Opinion: a guide for new law students.”

At 12 pages, you’ll be able to digest in a sitting. And you’ll be smarter when you find yourself reading a case. In a nutshell, the author explains:

  • the parts of an opinion (the caption, case citation, author, facts, law, decision(s)),

  • common legal terms found in opinions (civil v. criminal cases, and the difference between appellant and appellee, for instance), and

  • what you learn by reading a case.

While the article is focused on those entering law school, and particularly the reading law students undertake during their courses of study, it is also useful for those of us who find ourselves rarely reading cases.

A quick example. In 2018 the Supreme Court decided a case centered on the collection of sales tax, and alas (my personal opinion because I’m not a fan of sales taxes) overturned precedent in National Bellas Hess, Inc. v. Department of Revenue of Ill., 386 U.S. 753 and Quill Corp. v. North Dakota, 504 U.S. 298.

The caption in this instance is South Dakota v. Wayfair, Inc., et al. The case citation is 585 U.S. __ (2018). Justice Kennedy (or J. Kennedy) wrote the opinion. Also, and this is profoundly useful, the Supreme Court in this case offers a syllabus (aka headnote), which synopsizes both the facts of the case and the law applied.

Finally, the great thing about just about all recent Supreme Court cases is the existence of so many blogs dedicated to the decisions. For instance, here’s Oyez on Wayfair. Note the commentary relative to the distribution of the individual justices as well as links to oral arguments, the syllabus, and the various opinions. SCOTUSblog is huge in the space, and also includes wide-ranging analysis about the Court, Justices, and various and sundry decisions. A little high test for those of us interested only in taxes, but I’m assuming if you made it to the end of this blog you might be more curious than the average bear.