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Old June 25, 2014, 09:58 AM   #1
TXAZ
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Reading and (trying to) UNDERSTAND SCOTUS decisions

I've tried numerous times learning the jargon and reading some of the Supreme Court decisions on 2A and other interesting topics. The nuances are something else.

<Frustrations in understanding an official document written in English, and listing of advanced education / degrees deleted>

Is there a trick or online resource that helps decode the legalese these are printed in, a secret magic decoder ring only law school grads have, or is it in reality a "wait for the translation" on the evening news or some other legal gun blog decoder?
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Old June 25, 2014, 10:23 AM   #2
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There are several classes in the course of law school in which you are (supposedly) taught how to read and understand cases. One of them, Constitutional Law, is almost entirely devoted to understanding and deciphering Supreme Court decisions. I say "supposedly" because each teacher may have a bias and each area of the law has nuances that may not be learned until after several years of practicing law.

Some cases are better written than others and what question is being decided is very different for each case. There is no shortcut or code book. The evening news, including the "experts" interviewed on the news or even on blogs dedicated to following the Supreme Court's cases, is not necessarily an accurate translation. Use diverse sources and then draw your own conclusion.
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Old June 25, 2014, 10:26 AM   #3
Jim Watson
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I think of such stuff as a full employment program for lawyers. Remember, the ones behind the bench are lawyers, too.

Maybe you can find a "gist" which is a recognized term for a statement of the main points of the case.
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Old June 25, 2014, 10:53 AM   #4
Frank Ettin
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I guess part of the difficulty reading laws and court opinions comes from a need to be familiar with the context -- where "law" comes from, what it is and how the process works. It might help to think of "law", i. e., statutes enacted by legislative bodies, constitutions and charters adopted by political entities to govern the operations of those entities, and past judicial opinions, as a tool used to decide the outcome of a dispute or disagreement. So when a court writes an opinion deciding a matter in contention, it is explaining how it applied the law to the facts and circumstances in order to decide the outcome.

Another part of the difficulty is a matter of volume and practice. In law school we read a lot of cases and talk about them a lot, all under the guidance of our teachers. Dealing with the subject matter regularly and in a disciplined, rigorous way is a big help.

Some on-line sources that might help --
  • scotusblog: This is a blog by lawyers and law students focusing on Supreme Court activity. In addition to following cased, one can often find articles discussion Supreme Court actions and decision. This might offer some insight in how lawyers look at these things.

  • The Legal Information Institute: This is a publication of the Cornell Law School. Among other things the site includes links to other resources and a legal encyclopedia.

  • Oyex: This is a publication of the Chicago-Kent College of Law. It tracks Supreme Court cases and publishes articles.

  • Often if you Google a case name you will find articles by lawyers discussing the case. Sometimes reading the articles in combination with the case opinion will help clarify the decision.
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Old June 25, 2014, 11:51 AM   #5
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I've tried to do this too. One lawyer told me I did pretty well for a layman, the other one called me an idiot too dense to understand such a basic principle. Both were probably right, as one explained things the way my mind works, and the other didn't.

The legal dictionary helps a LOT. You'll spend a lot of time looking up new words like curtilage. You'll spend even more looking up the legal definition of words you thought you knew the meaning of, such as title, because the legal definition and the everyday definition of some of these words is both different and highly technical.

The other thing that helped me was to realize when you're reading a case, you're not reading ONE case, you'll end up reading several- especially the ones they refer to or cite, even passingly, in the decision. It also helps to read recent ones over older ones. The older ones are like reading current ones written by Shakespeare. The rhythm of the language alone can increase the difficulty.
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Old June 25, 2014, 02:28 PM   #6
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I would also recommend Volokh Conspiracy, currently hosted at the Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/

At some point this summer, that blog will drop behind the WP paywall.
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Old June 25, 2014, 05:06 PM   #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by JimDandy
...The other thing that helped me was to realize when you're reading a case, you're not reading ONE case, you'll end up reading several- especially the ones they refer to or cite, even passingly, in the decision....
That's an excellent point. "The Law" isn't just the case you're reading. That decision, the outcome of that dispute, is built on a foundation of a lot that came before. That's another thing that can give a lawyer an advantage -- we've tracked the evolution of legal principles and monitor those principles as they evolve further.

And always remember that context matters. Too often a layperson will become overly focused on the stated rule without consideration of the underlying facts and circumstances, and how the rule then applies (or not) to those facts and circumstances.

In fact I've seen lawyers fall into that trap and wind up getting humiliated when the opposition points out why the "rule" in the case cited isn't applicable to the matter at hand. The embarrassed lawyer didn't thorough read and understand the case he cited and its context, while the opposing lawyer did.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Librarian
I would also recommend Volokh Conspiracy, currently hosted at the Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/
I agree -- another excellent resource.
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Old June 25, 2014, 10:38 PM   #8
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Go to your local "big-box book store" (Borders, Barnes and Noble, etc.), and pick up their "study guides."

They are essentially cliff notes/cheat sheets. They have them for most disciplines that advanced degrees are available for and most trades as well. They are usually a small binder or a couple laminated pages, dedicated to one single topic (Constitutional Law, Property Law, etc). They usually run about $10 per.

While they are certainly not comprehensive, they give you the basics so that when you see terms such as the different scrutiny levels in Constitutional challenges, you will have an idea of what they are talking about.

They sure helped me through my first couple months of law school when my head was spinning.
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Old June 26, 2014, 08:16 AM   #9
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Quote:
In fact I've seen lawyers fall into that trap and wind up getting humiliated when the opposition points out why the "rule" in the case cited isn't applicable to the matter at hand. The embarrassed lawyer didn't thorough read and understand the case he cited and its context, while the opposing lawyer did.
When reading the law (especially statutes and regulations). we were taught:

Read it.
Read it again.
Read on. (meaning read the rest of the statute, rule, or cited cases to see if there is some exception or change that affects your situation)
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Old June 26, 2014, 08:32 AM   #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by TXAZ
Is there a trick or online resource that helps decode the legalese these are printed in, a secret magic decoder ring only law school grads have, or is it in reality a "wait for the translation" on the evening news or some other legal gun blog decoder?
No, there's no secret decoder ring . . . well, not really. You can find more than one legal dictionary online, though. If you find a shortcut to learning to read cases, write it down in book format, copyright it, and sell it in law school bookstores!
Quote:
Originally Posted by Frank Ettin
Quote:
Originally Posted by JimDandy
...The other thing that helped me was to realize when you're reading a case, you're not reading ONE case, you'll end up reading several- especially the ones they refer to or cite, even passingly, in the decision....
That's an excellent point. "The Law" isn't just the case you're reading. That decision, the outcome of that dispute, is built on a foundation of a lot that came before. That's another thing that can give a lawyer an advantage -- we've tracked the evolution of legal principles and monitor those principles as they evolve further.
This is very true. If you spend enough time reading cases, eventually, you start to read cases against the backdrop of all the other stuff that has happened before in that particular field. For example, when I read a search and seizure case, even that case makes no mention of Terry or Gant or Schneckloth are mentioned, I know that I might have to go dig out those cases because they're important search & seizure cases. I know that I can't really understand the latest A4 case without knowing something about the "A4 landscape."

And as Armorer-at-Law notes:
Quote:
Originally Posted by Armorer-at-Law
When reading the law (especially statutes and regulations). we were taught:

Read it.
Read it again.
Read on. (meaning read the rest of the statute, rule, or cited cases to see if there is some exception or change that affects your situation)
Yes, we read the same materials over, and over, and over, and as cases are handed down, we add new materials to read over, and over, and over.
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Old June 27, 2014, 04:58 AM   #11
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You just keep at it and the language starts to make sense eventually.

I got interested because of the commerce power. Someone told me it covered homegrown wheat for personal use. I had to know how. I recommend becoming interested in a different area of constitutional law.

This thread reminds me of those early days, trying to figure out why people were talking about a "dormant" commerce power.
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Old June 27, 2014, 04:49 PM   #12
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One of the things you have to learn how to do, at least initially, is ignore all the citations thrown into the middle of a paragraph or sentence. If it helps, copy the online text into a word processor and delete all this stuff. This will help with comprehension. The citations, however, are critical in deciding whether the opinion is well supported.

There is a movement by some legal writers to put citations into footnotes to make legal pleadings more comprehensible to non-lawyers. A number of judges do this as well. Others, however, believe this is more distracting to those to whom the opinion is mostly directed, other lawyers. When I read an opinion, I glance at the citation to see the source. If it is a U.S. Supreme Court opinion, I play close attention to it. If it is an article published in a law review by a law student, not so much. Law students and lawyers read a vast number of cases. They learn to "read through" these citations as if they weren't there (for comprehension purposes). Non-lawyers obviously don't have that experience. It has little to do with IQ.

A judicial opinion often is persuasive in nature but it is also directed to the parties and to the public at large. So, maybe the "compromise" is for lawyers to cite authorities within the text of the paragraph and for judges to cite authorities in footnotes.
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