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HOW TO READ A LEGAL OPINION
A GUIDE FOR NEW LAW STUDENTS

Orin S. Kerr

Copyright © 2007 Orin S. Kerr

Second Series • Autumn 2007

Volume 11 • Number 1

Published by The Green Bag, Inc., in cooperation with the George Mason University School of Law.

HOW TO READ A LEGAL OPINION
A GUIDE FOR NEW LAW STUDENTS

Orin S. Kerr†
This essay is designed to help new law students prepare for the first few weeks of class. It explains what judicial opinions are, how they are structured, and what law students should look for when reading them.

W

I. WHAT’S IN A LEGAL OPINION?

hen two people disagree and that disagreement leads to a lawsuit, the lawsuit will sometimes end with a ruling by a judge in favor of one side. The judge will explain the ruling in a written document referred to as an “opinion.” The opinion explains what the case is about, discusses the relevant legal principles, and then applies the law to the facts to reach a ruling in favor of one side and against the other. Modern judicial opinions reflect hundreds of years of history and practice. They usually follow a simple and predictable formula. This



Orin Kerr is a professor of law at the George Washington University Law School. This essay can be freely distributed for non-commercial uses under the Creative Commons AttributionNonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license. For the terms of the license, visit creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/legalcode. 11 GREEN BAG 2D 51

Orin S. Kerr section takes you through the basic formula. It starts with the introductory materials at the top of an opinion and then moves on to the body of the opinion. The Caption The first part of the case is the title of the case, known as the “caption.” Examples include Brown v. Board of Education and Miranda v. Arizona. The caption usually tells you the last names of the...

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