Getting it

from Helen Dalphonse, University of Maryland Law student

Here's what you've been waiting for. The next five steps are absolutely essential to your success as a legal scholar or legal-opinion reader. So, let's get down to it.

1. Get comfortable with the facts

Donít rush to second base with the facts. Many people skim through the facts of a case under the assumption that the details arenít important. The reality is that the facts need to be caressed. You need to become one with the specifics because in the end details drastically affect the way the Court decides a case. So, donít be afraid to re-read. Cases that make it to the highest court in the land are most likely complex, but you can overcome that challenge with diligent and purposeful reading.

2. Think Legal

Wrapping you head around the most important legal question(s) or issue(s) helps you to know whatís going on. Having a hard time figuring out what that is? Go through the case and try to phrase a question that the whole opinion seems to answer. Also, during the syllabus portion of the document (the first few pages) the court will usually identify the larger issue(s).

3. Look down

Try to find out what happened in the lower courts. Many times a case will refer to a ruling in the lower courts, and understanding an earlier ruling can only help ease you along the path to finally getting it.

4. Theyíve got standards

Figure out if thereís standard or test that the Court is using to weigh the elements of a case. This will aid you in understanding why the case ultimately decided the way it did.

5. Who do we have here?

There are nine U.S. Supreme Court justices, and just as you might expect, each justice interprets the law according to his or her own philosophies. Figuring out who said what and why will help you further understand the decision and to put the opinion in context.