How to Read a Court Decision

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on March 31, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

We break down quite a few legal decisions on our blogs, and we post some of them over on Courtside. So when you're looking at a court ruling we've published or reading one issued in a case you're involved in, how do you know what you're looking for?

Courts can publish in different formats and employ a lot of "legalese," so here are a few tips on how to read a court decision.

Start at the Beginning

This sounds obvious, but most courts will put a short summary of the case and the court's ruling right there at the start. This Supreme Court decision on white collar crime laws applied to a fisherman is a good example. The first page contains a short syllabus of the facts of the case, followed by the court's decision. Pages two and three have a summary of the majority's reasoning in deciding the case.

Also, just about every court order or opinion will list the parties involved and the court on the front page. That will tell you to whom the decision applies and the jurisdiction of the court. While Supreme Court decisions apply nationwide, this order from a circuit court in Tennessee regarding the cap on injury damages is specific to Tennessee law and could be appealed to a higher court.

Use the first few pages of a decision to orient yourself and get a good idea of what the case is about and what the ultimate decision was.

Tread Lightly

Judges are notorious for using dense language, peppered with references to cases and legal theories only understood by other judges and lawyers with extensive training under their belts. While some judges have taken note and try to make their writing more accessible to the public, many still write opinions in an impenetrable style with little regard whether the parties themselves can even decipher them.

Therefore, don't be discouraged if you get confused here and there later in the opinion, or don't understand esoteric legal references. While those are important for the lawyers and appellate courts, you probably don't need to be fluent in the three levels of judicial scrutiny to understand why a federal court said banning gay marriage is illegal.

(And reading opinions on a lighter note might help you pick up on judicial sarcasm and attempts at humor.)

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