Making an Appeal to the Supreme Court
The 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.”

Two 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.

Cases 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.

Decisions 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.

When 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.

The 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*
When 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:

State 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.

Name 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?]

State 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?

State the issue (or issues) — What are the legal issues that the court must decide in order to arrive at a decision?

State the holding — What does the court hold or decide? What is the “rule” that it comes up with in answer to the legal issues posed?

State 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?

There 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, pp. 9-10.