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Where Do Legal Cases Originate?

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The basis of the American law school system is what is known as the case method. In the case method selected published decisions of appellate courts, taken from actual cases, are grouped together by legal subject matter in books known as casebooks. The objective of the editors is to choose interesting and informative cases that can be read progressively, to enable the student to observe the historical development of the topic, become aware of the legal reasoning involved, and get familiar with the language used by lawyers and judges in that area of the law. This background of knowledge should give the student a command of what the law is and an ability to predict where it may be headed.

How do these cases we are talking about get into the law books? They start when two people get into an argument that they cannot settle. Eventually, one sues the other and the case comes to trial. A judge or a jury gives a verdict for one side and the losing party appeals to a higher court.


State cases normally begin at county court level; if appealed, they progress to intermediate and supreme state appellate courts; and if a federal or United States constitutional question is involved, they may even get as far as the United States Supreme Court. In the federal system, cases generally start in the United States District Court and are appealed to the Circuit Court of Appeals, and then to the United States Supreme Court. Appellate courts are historically made up of an odd number of justices, generally three, five or seven, depending on the court, with nine sitting on the United States Supreme Court.

When a Notice of Appeal is filed in the trial court, a copy of the trial court record is prepared and filed with the appellate court. The appellant files an opening brief; respondent files an answering brief and appellant files a reply brief. After the court has had time to study the record and the briefs, the matter is calendared (set for oral argument). One lawyer for each side is given equal time to present the case, generally a half hour. No witnesses are presented. Consideration of evidence is limited to what is in the record on appeal.

As each lawyer argues, the justices may, and frequently do, interrupt to ask questions. When time for both sides has expired, the case is "submitted." Eventually, the court issues a written opinion giving its decision in the case. If all the justices agree, the decision is, of course, "unanimous." If there is disagreement, the majority rules in a "split decision." Whatever the result, the case is eventually transferred back down to the trial court for disposition in accordance with the directions of the opinion.

An opinion contains holdings on various points of law involved in the case and discusses the legal reasoning involved in reaching the decision. If the appellant wins it means that the trial court erred in the way it handled the case and its decision is overruled. If the respondent wins it means that the trial court verdict is affirmed (stands as it originally was rendered). While to the clients and their lawyers the case is a matter of victory or defeat, to other lawyers, the appellate opinion is a guide as to what the latest law is with respect to the subjects discussed.

So that the profession will quickly be aware of any changes in the law, opinions are first published in paperback advance sheets available for purchase. Individual copies of issued opinions may be obtained earlier from the issuing court, and important cases are usually printed the next publication day in legal newspapers within the jurisdiction of the court. In some states like California, where there is sufficient demand for the service, a chain of legal newspapers daily puts out copies of all appellate decisions, just as they appear typed in the court files. When enough material has accumulated, the cases are published in bound volumes. Eventually, selected opinions wind up in student casebooks.


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