an Appeal to the Supreme Court
United States Constitution in Articles I, II and III established
the division of powers into three parts: legislative “vested in
a Congress of the United States,” executive “vested in a President
of the United States of America,” and judicial “vested in one Supreme
Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time
to time ordain and establish.”
hundred years later, the judicial branch has two main branches:
the federal courts and the state courts in each of the 50 states,
the District of Columbia and U.S. territories. Since we are studying
constitutional issues, our focus is on federal courts.
relating to the Constitution, federal laws or statutes passed by
Congress and regulations of federal agencies are decided first in
U.S. District Courts. There are 94 U.S. District Courts. People
unhappy with decisions at this level may appeal their cases in the
United States Circuit Courts of Appeal.
made by the United States Supreme Court are called the supreme law
of the land because the Supreme Court is the last, and final, step
in the appeals process. The Supreme Court sends a Writ of Certiorari
to the lower courts, directing them to deliver cases for review.
From about 6,000 petitions for certiorari every year, the
Supreme Court decides to hear about 90 cases. Because of consolidations,
the court eventually decides a total of 70 – 80 cases.
the Supreme Court agrees to hear an appeal, each team of attorneys
is given a chance to present its position. The petitioners, those
who are initiating the lawsuit by appealing a lower court’s decision,
present their case first. In this case, the Dallas district attorney
is the petitioner. The other party is called the respondent.
Johnson and his attorneys are the respondents in this case. While
the attorneys are making their presentations, the justices can interrupt.
procedure is the path the case took to arrive at the Supreme
Court. This is usually found at the beginning of the majority
opinion. One of the nine justices is selected to present the
decision of the five or more justices in the majority. Those in
the minority express their different point of view of the issue
in the dissenting or minority opinion.
How to brief a case*
law students read cases, they often take notes on them and outline
them in a way that has come to be known as “briefing a case.” You
might find it useful to brief cases as you start your own … case-reading
and analysis. To effectively brief a case, you must:
the procedure — Where did this case come from? A state
supreme court after a state appeals court after a state district
court? A federal appeals court after a federal district court?
What happened in those lower courts? Who won? Who lost? The procedural
history of the case is a very quick statement about the path the
case has followed in the courts.
the parties — Who is the plaintiff? Who is the defendant?
[In Supreme Court cases, you should ask, Who is the petitioner?
Who is the respondent?]
the facts — Write down the facts of what happened
to the parties. What is the story between them? Who did what to
whom? What happened that is of legal significance, that is, what
happened that is relevant to deciding the legal issues?
the issue (or issues) — What are the legal issues
that the court must decide in order to arrive at a decision?
the holding — What does the court hold or decide? What
is the “rule” that it comes up with in answer to the legal issues
the court’s reasoning or rationale
— Why does the court decide the way it does? What is the logic
or rationale of its holding? What is its analysis?
is no single right way to brief a case, but these basic features
might be useful to you.
*How to Brief a Case
reprinted, by permission, from We The Students by Jamin
B. Raskin (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Inc.), 2000,