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Part Three of the Seriously Awesome Article Series: A Departure

posted Jul 22, 2012, 9:39 PM by Anthony Severin
This is somewhat of a departure from the usual, but I saw this and instantly thought I should post it here. A lot of ya'll are likely aspiring lawyers, or, at the very least, occasionally forced into reading legal opinions by debate research. Unlike scholarly articles, legal opinions are a little less intuitive, and it may be harder to divine the intent of the author. Thus, I bring you How to Read a Legal Opinion: A Guide for New Law Students, by George Washington University law professor Orin Kerr, which may be found here.

Law professors love the facts. When they call on students in class, they typically begin by asking students to state the facts of a particular case. Facts are important because law is often highly factsensitive, which is a fancy way of saying that the proper legal outcome depends on the exact details of what happened. If you don’t know the facts, you can’t really understand the case and can’t understand the law. Most law students don’t appreciate the importance of the facts when they read a case. Students think, “I’m in law school, not fact school; I want to know what the law is, not just what happened in this one case.” But trust me: the facts are really important.

I particularly like the point Kerr makes in this paragraph. What he says may be applied to any field-- science, mathematics, academic debate-- whatever the case may be, knowing the facts at hand can be the difference between properly applying a principle and grossly misinterpreting an idea. I can tell you to apply the Pythagorean theorem to find the length of the side of a triangle, but if I don't know that the triangle is not a right triangle, you're going to end up with an answer that's completely wrong. In academic debate, someone may argue that the Russians are enabling Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions. But, if you know that Russia's assistance is purposely designed to prevent Iran from acquiring the necessary nuclear material (since, after all, Russia doesn't want a crazy guy with nuclear weapons any more than the U.S. does-- particularly since they're right next door to Russia), then you're in a much better position to argue against the opposition's argument than if you didn't know the details of the assistance.

All of that to say: facts are important. Know them and know how to find them (more on that second part coming).