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How to read a court decision PDF Print E-mail
Written by Administrator   
Wednesday, 02 January 2008

The Basics of Reading a Court Decision 

(United States Supreme Court, State Appellate Courts and State level Supreme Court decisions).  

Name of the CaseAlways located at the beginning, the name or title identifies the parties to the case. The name of the person or entity bringing the case to Court appears first; the party being brought to the Court is listed second. The v. stands for "versus" or "against."  For example, in Troxel v.Granville (USSC 2000)

Jenifer and Gary Troxel were the grandparents who petitioned the United States Supreme Court to hear their case after losing at the Washington State Supreme Court level. They sued, or were against, Tommie Granville, the mother of two of their granddaughters, who had limited the Troxel’s visitation time with her daughters after their father, the Troxel’s son, committed suicide. The Troxel’s did not agree with the amount of visitation time Tommie Granville offered and wanted more.  Having lost in the Washington Supreme Court, the Troxel’s wanted the United States Supreme Court to overturn the Washington Supreme Court decision that found Washington State’s grandparent visitation statute unconstitutional. In cases on certiorari (see definition below) the petitioner brings the case against the respondent. In cases on appeal (to ask a higher court to reverse the decision of a lower court), the appellant brings the case against the appellee.    

Certiorari pronounced (sersh-oh-rare-ee) is a writ (order) of a higher court to a lower court to send all the documents in a case to it so the higher court can review the lower court's decision. Certiorari is most commonly used by the U.S. Supreme Court, which is selective about which cases it will hear on appeal. To appeal to the Supreme Court one applies to the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari, which it grants at its discretion and only when at least three members believe that the case involves a sufficiently significant federal question in the public interest. By denying such a writ the Supreme Court says it will let the lower court decision stand, particularly if it conforms to accepted precedents (previously decided cases).  In other cases, the U.S. Supreme Court will accept certiorari, but not actually hear a case, but remand, or send it back to the lower court with directions to follow previous USSC decisions made in prior and similar cases (see Dodge v. Graville, USSC 2000).  In Dodge, the U.S. Supreme Court accepted certiorari and issued a memorandum decision. They did not hear arguments in the case, but vacated the lower court’s judgment and remanded the case back to the Arizona Court of Appeals with directions to rely on their decision in Troxel v. Granville, thereby sending the message that the Troxel decision was intended to be followed in all states and not just Washington State as many courts have argued.

FactsCases are real, not hypothetical, controversies between parties. The issues of a case arise from circumstances or events that have prompted one or both parties to seek redress or resolution in court. The facts of a case may or may not be in dispute, but they are always a factor in how cases are decided.  To back up and support or disprove the facts of a case, attorneys, justices and judges cite case law, or previous cases already decided by state appellate courts, state Supreme Courts, and by the United States Supreme Court that were allowed by the deciding court to be published – allowing it to be used in other cases.  The case law cited helps highlight key points in the case being heard. Many times, Courts have previously decided on cases similar to the one before them, thus the case law for the previous case(s) is usually heavily relied upon to show agreement or disagreement with the facts of the case at hand and to highlight the justices or judges reasonings for ruling the way they did.

Question(s). The facts of a case present one or more issues or questions for decision. Most of a judicial opinion is an effort to answer those questions. Although even a relatively simple case may generate many questions, counsel in the Supreme Court seek review only of those of the gravest importance-to the parties involved and to the nation, whereas state appeals courts and state level Supreme Courts are only concerned with the their particular state. Ordinarily, the United States Supreme Court decides questions of law, not fact. In reviewing a criminal conviction, for instance, the Court is rarely concerned with a defendant's actual guilt or innocence. Rather, the justices focus on procedural issues, such as the admissibility of evidence or the lawfulness of an arrest.

DecisionA decision is the result or outcome of a case. The Court's opinion provides answers to the question(s) the case raises. For example, in Troxel v. Granville, Tommie Granville questioned the constitutionality of Washington State’s grandparent visitation statute citing that it did not give special weight to the decisions of a fit parent to limit or deny visitation with grandparents. The Unites States Supreme Court decided to agree that fit parents normally do what is in the best interest of their children and found grandparent visitation unconstitutional.  Typically in the Supreme Court, and state appellate courts, decisions take the form of affirming (accepting) or reversing (rejecting and setting aside) the judgment of the court below. When reversing, the justices/judges will often remand (send back) a case to the lower court for action "consistent with" the Court's decision or dismiss the case entirely completely striking down the lower court’s decision.  

Reasoning of the Majority Opinion. The goal of the Court's decision-making process is a statement reflecting the consensus of a majority of the justices. It explains why a certain question requires a certain answer. An exercise in persuasion, the majority opinion  (the opinion stating the outcome of a case) attempts to justify the decision the Court has reached.

Reasoning of Separate OpinionsConcurring and dissenting opinions should be examined closely because they may shed light on what has been decided. Dissenting opinions (or opinions of justices who disagree with the majority opinion) highlights perceived weaknesses in the majority's reasoning. Concurring opinions (opinions written by judges/justices who agree with the majority but want to highlight other points) may indicate the limits to a line of reasoning beyond which certain members of the majority are not willing to go. Both may highlight legal trends-where a decision has come from and where it might be going.

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 02 January 2008 )
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