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Northern Illinois University | Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) Program | Political Science Writing Assistance | Help Sheets and Writing Tips | Writing Supreme Court Briefs

Writing Supreme Court Briefs

Kenneth Holland suggests writing briefs of Supreme Court decisions to improve summary and analysis skills and to obtain a better understanding of important issues. As he explains,

"Part of the success of the brief is due to the tight structure within which the students must work. By providing them with a container for the information, they are better equipped to discover it. The dictate of brevity forces them to transform legal jargon and convoluted prose into language they can understand. . . . Few tools are more useful to the student/reader and student/writer than the ability to discern the main point and outline of an argument. Few arguments are more authoritative and relevant to our daily lives than those found in the opinions of the U. S. Supreme Court. By briefing these opinions, students learn both to make better arguments and to become more discriminating consumers of political information" (72-73).

What To Write:

    Write the case name and official citation (10 words).

    Summarize the key facts in the case (125 words).

    State the constitutional issue presented in the case with a one-sentence question that can be answered with YES or NO (25 words).

    Write the Court's resolution of the issue (the "holding"), how the vote was broken down, and who wrote the majority opinion (10 words).

    Summarize the Court's reasoning justifying the holding (200 words).

    List which justices, if any, wrote separate opinions (25 words).

Benefits You Can Expect:

    Be able to discriminate and find important facts.

    Use inductive reasoning, moving from facts to a general rule.

    Generate interpretations and think like a lawyer.

    Develop summarization skills.

    Learn how to analyze, to separate a whole into its parts.

    Develop your valuative thinking skills (that is, how to think for yourself).

    Improve reading and comprehension skills.

    Work firsthand with Supreme Court texts.

For more information on this topic, see Holland, Kenneth M. "Briefing the Supreme Court: Summary and Analysis."Teaching Critical Thinking: Reports from Across the Curriculum. John H. Clarke an d Arthur W. Biddle. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993.

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