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APUS Legal Studies Program Writing Guide

Briefing Court Opinions (Cases)


How to Brief a Case

Prepared for the Legal Studies Program

American Public University System

July, 2015


A case brief is a concise summary of the significance of a case. It is a bit like a “book report,” but with very special rules! It is a time-honored practice used throughout the legal profession and in law schools. As a teaching tool, the case brief forces the student to identify and provide a written description of the most important aspects of a case. Legal precedent, also known as stare decisis, is a doctrine which governs much of our legal process. Under the doctrine, a prior court’s decision serves as “authority” for a subsequent court which will address the same or similar issue. Therefore, understanding a court’s decision and the rationale underlying itthat is, how the judges arrived at their decisionis essential to the study of law. The case brief serves as a very useful vehicle by means of which to analyze and understand judicial decisions. 

A case brief is a tool to “capture” or outline the most important aspects of a case. A case brief is not an invitation to re-write the opinion or to paste together quotes from the court’s opinion. The brief should be written in your own words, based on your understanding of the case. Of course, select quotes of the court’s words can be useful, if used sparingly. A case brief should be concise; it should be no more than 1-2 pages. There are at least several different methods or models for writing the case brief; these are based on personal preferences. In the APUS Legal Studies Program, however, the format described here will be used for all of the case briefs which you are required to write in your courses. By using this uniform format, you will gain familiarity with the case analysis and brief writing process. 

Often, your textbooks will contain synopses of or abbreviated versions of courts’ opinions. When you want to understand a court’s decision, it is essential that you read the entire opinion, rather than a mere summary. Therefore, the first step in the brief writing process is always to thoroughly read the entire case. This includes reading any concurring and dissenting opinions of members of the court.  In this regard, be very sure that you are reading the entire opinion!  In some internet based sources, the Syllabus (headnotes/summary) of the opinion is presented at one link, the majority opinion is presented at another link, etc. You need to read all portions of the opinion as all of them are relevant to your analysis of the case. For example, if there are strong dissenting opinions based on key legal points, this could predict what the court might decide in the future on similar issues.

1. Case Name and Citation: As a header on the first page of your brief, you should state the name of the case, identify each party’s role in the case, and give the full Bluebook style citation to the case. (See Bluebook resources in the APUS Library for more information about Bluebook format.) It is essential that the reader of your case brief know who initiated the litigation and who appealed. For example, in the sample case brief of the Delahanty case (see accompanying materials), Thomas and Jean Delahanty are clearly identified as the plaintiffs (parties who initiated the litigation) and as appellants (parties who sought appellate review of the lower court’s decision). The full Bluebook style citation enables your reader to find the correct legal reporter in which the opinion is found, the volume and page on which the case appears, and the year in which the case was decided. 

2.  Facts: The Facts section is a short synopsis of the most important facts of the case. “Important” means “relevant” to the issue before the court and to the decision of the court. Your reader needs to know “what happened” to give rise to the litigation and needs to understand the facts that were analyzed by the court. Although other factual details might be interesting, only include them if they give the reader the “big picture” of what the case is about. Be sure to include the nature of the lawsuit and the parties in the lawsuit. The goal in the Facts section is to summarize the facts in such a manner that if someone did not read the court’s opinion, they would understand the facts of the case. 

3.  Procedural History: The Procedural History section is a summary of previous proceedings between the parties from the time the case was initially filed to the present. This is important because most reported cases are appellate cases in which a previous decision was rendered in a trial court. It is essential that you understand how the case arrived in the court, the opinion of which you are briefing. Indeed, in many case brief assignments, you will brief an Opinion of the United States Supreme Court; in those instances, the case will likely have been in several different courts previously. It is important that you “track” who “won” at each level, and that you understand that the losing party appeals to the next level of court. 

The Delahanty case is an example of a somewhat unusual case, but the unusual nature of the case is a good illustration of why the Procedural History of the case is so important. The civil lawsuit was filed by the Delahantys in federal court (United States District Court in the District of Columbia). Their case was dismissed and they appealed to the next level of federal court (the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit). That federal appellate court needed to obtain the view of the court in the applicable local jurisdiction (the District of Columbia) on a specific legal question. In order to obtain that view, the federal appellate court “certified” the legal question to the local court. The sample case brief is written about the opinion rendered by the local court, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. 

4.  Issue(s): The issue presented should be a yes/no question which identifies the specific question or issue the court must decide in order to rule in the case. For example, “Are manufacturers and distributors of Saturday Night Specials strictly liable for injuries arising from their criminal use in the District of Columbia?” There may be more than one main issue that the court must decide. If there are multiple issues, the issues should be set forth in number format, such as “Issue 1.”

5.  Holding(s):  The Holding section succinctly states how the court answered the issue(s) presented. Typically, it includes a yes/no answer followed by the issue presented written in an answer format. It also includes the legal principle relied on by the court. If there are multiple issues, there must be a corresponding number of holdings.

6.  Reasoning: The Reasoning section describes why the court reached its holding in the case. This may include an application or revision of pre-existing legal principles, policy reasons, and/or negative effects resulting from a different court ruling. If there are both a majority and dissenting opinion issued by the court, then this section should be broken down into two subsections. Likewise, if there is a concurring opinion, a brief description should be included in an additional subsection. If there are multiple issues, there must be a corresponding number of sub-sections within the Reasoning section.

7.  Decision: Describe the final disposition of the case. Did the court affirm the lower court's decision, reverse it, or remand the case for additional proceedings?

8.  Comments: Is there anything else that should be mentioned about this case? Is it a “landmark” case in the sense that the court significantly changed the law concerned a particular issue? Was the court “divided”? Were there vigorous dissenting opinions? Do you see any weaknesses/discrepancies in the court’s opinions?  

For example, in the Delahanty sample brief, a useful comment would be that the case is a good example of how appellate courts certify issues to other courts in order to obtain the legal opinion of the other court on a particular issue.  

The full Delahanty opinion can be viewed by accessing the case in Nexis Uni and entering your APUS credentials at this link.

Sample Case Brief

Case Citation:            Delahanty v. Hinckley, 564 A.2d 758 (D.C. 1989).

Parties:                      Thomas and Jean Delahanty, Plaintiffs / Appellants

                                  John Hinckley, Defendant / Appellee

Facts: Thomas Delahanty was seriously injured when John Hinckley attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. John Hinckley used a “Saturday Night Special” in the assassination attempt that was manufactured by R. G. Industries, a subsidiary of Roehm. 

Procedural History: Appellants filed suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against John Hinkley, R.G. Industries, the gun manufacturer, Roehm, the manufacturer’s foreign parent company, and individual officers of Roehm, for injuries Appellant Thomas Delahanty suffered when Hinkley attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. The District Court dismissed appellants’ complaint against R.G. Industries, Roehm, and individual officers of Roehm for failure to state a claim. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit certified the question of whether, in the District of Columbia, “manufacturers and distributors of Saturday Night Specials may be strictly liable for injuries arising from these guns’ criminal use” to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.


Issue 1: Whether, in the District of Columbia, manufacturers and distributors of Saturday Night Specials may be held strictly liable for injuries arising from their criminal use?

Issue 2: Whether established theories of tort law in the District of  Columbia provide a cause of action against gun manufacturers and distributors for injuries arising from the guns’ criminal uses?


Issue 1: No. Manufacturers and distributors of Saturday Night Specials are not strictly liable for injuries arising from these guns’ criminal use.

Issue 2: No. Established theories of tort law in the District of Columbia do not provide a cause of action against gun manufacturers and distributors for injuries arising from the guns’ criminal uses.

Reasoning: Appellants advanced the following three theories in support of their position:

Issue 1:

a. Strict liability for sale of defective product

The court rejected this theory of liability because appellants put on no evidence that the weapon Hinkley purchased and later used in the assassination attempt was in any way defective. Rather, appellants argued that the manufacturers had a duty to warn of the dangers of criminal misuse of the gun. The court found this argument unpersuasive, pointing out that a manufacturer has no duty to warn because the dangerous nature of guns self-evident.

b.  Strict liability for abnormally dangerous activity

Appellants argued that the manufacturer should be held liable because the Saturday Night Special is “inherently and abnormally dangerous with no social value.” The “abnormally dangerous activity” doctrine had never been applied to gun manufacturers in the District of Columbia. The Court rejected this application of the doctrine, since selling weapons is not an abnormally dangerous activity “in and of itself.” In response to appellants’ reliance on Kelly v. R.G. Industries, 304 Md. 124, 497 A.2d 1143 (1985), the court stated that it is not just cheap guns that may potentially by used to commit crimes, and that the Maryland legislature had specifically overridden the Kelly decision.

Issue 2:

While the general rule is that no tort liability exists for harm resulting from the criminal acts of third parties, an exception sometimes comes in to play when a special relationship exists between parties. Examples of such “special” relationships include landlord/tenant, hospital/patient, and school/student relationships. The court declined to extend this special relationship status to gun manufacturers and sellers/gun purchasers, as Appellants neither argued that any special relationship existed, nor suggested any way that gun manufacturers could prevent their gun purchasers from misusing the purchased gun for criminal acts.


Affirmed. The court answered the certified question from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Traditional tort theories, such as negligence and strict liability, provide no basis for holding a gun manufacturer liable for injuries caused by a buyer of the gun to a third party.

Comment: This case gives a good example of how appellate courts may certify issues to other courts (either lower or in different jurisdictions) for opinions. In this case, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia (federal appellate court) certified the issue to a Washington D.C. court because it presented a question of local law, not federal law. 

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