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Cybercrime Investigation - How to Write Case Briefs

Published onAug 18, 2020
Cybercrime Investigation - How to Write Case Briefs

Crafting A Good Case Brief

Crafting a good case brief requires the skills to pull out and analyze the most important details from a case.  This may seem to be a daunting task, but there are a few simple and very effective strategies identifies by Pyle et al., 2017.

  1. Read through the case first.  It may be tempting to start constructing your brief as you read the case, but it is best to read it through completely before beginning the brief. This is helpful for understanding the big picture and being able to focus on the most relevant aspects to include in your summary.

  2. Put things into your own words.  A case brief is essentially a concise restatement of information that has already been written. As you read a case, ask yourself how you would phrase certain sections or arguments. This will help ensure your understanding of the case and help you construct your brief.

  3. Brief for yourself.  Briefs help you learn to recognize the important details and legal reasoning from decisions and serve as a helpful study tool for your exams, as well as simply offering good writing practice. Write them in a way that makes sense to you and helps you contribute to discussions.

We are neither lawyers nor law students in this class, so we immediately face the first obstacle of identifying relationships between the parties involved in court cases and differentiating among their roles in the process. The following information will help us to make these distinctions (Pyle et al., 2017):

  • Plaintiffs sue defendants in civil suits in trial courts.

  • The government (state or federal) prosecutes defendants in criminal cases in trial courts.

  • The losing party in a criminal prosecution or a civil action may ask a higher (appellate) court to review the case on the ground that the trial court judge made a mistake. If the law gives the loser the right to a higher court review, his or her lawyers will appeal. If the loser does not have this right, his or her lawyers may ask the court for a writ of certiorari. Under this procedure, the appellate court is being asked to exercise its lawful discretion in granting the cases a hearing for review.  For example, a defendant convicted in a federal district court has the right to appeal this decision in the Court of Appeals of the circuit and this court cannot refuse to hear it. The party losing in this appellate court can request that the case be reviewed by the Supreme Court, but, unless certain special circumstances apply, has no right to a hearing.

  • These two procedures, appeals and petitions for certiorari, are sometimes loosely grouped together as “appeals.”  A person who seeks a writ of certiorari, that is, a ruling by a higher court that it hear the case, is known as a petitioner. The person who must respond to the petition, that is, the winner in the lower court, is called the respondent.

  • A person who files a formal appeal demanding appellate review as a matter of right is known as the appellant. His or her opponent is the appellee.  The name of the party initiating the action in court, at any level on the judicial ladder, always appears first in the legal papers. For example, Arlo Tatum and others sued in Federal District Court for an injunction against Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird and others to stop the Army from spying on them. Tatum and his friends became plaintiffs and the case was then known as Tatum v. Laird. The Tatum group lost in the District Court and appealed to the Court of Appeals, where they were referred to as the appellants, and the defendants became the appellees. Thus the case was still known at Tatum v. Laird.  When Tatum and his fellow appellants won in the Court of Appeals, Laird and his fellow appellees decided to seek review by the Supreme Court. They successfully petitioned for a writ of certiorari from the Supreme Court directing the Court of Appeals to send up the record of the case (trial court transcript, motion papers, and assorted legal documents) to the Supreme Court.  At this point the name of the case changed to Laird v. Tatum: Laird and associates were now the petitioners, and Tatum and his fellows were the respondents. Several church groups and a group of former intelligence agents obtained permission to file briefs (written arguments) on behalf of the respondents to help persuade the Court to arrive at a decision favorable to them. Each of these groups was termed an amicus curiae, or “friend of the court.”   In criminal cases, switches in the titles of cases are common, because most reach the appellate courts as a result of an appeal by a convicted defendant. Thus, the case of Arizona v. Miranda later became Miranda v. Arizona.

Common Components of a Case Brief

If you were to look at different case brief examples, you would see that there are many different styles although they all have some common components. These common components are important as they contain relevant information about the cases that forms the essence of the case brief.  We are going to work with five basic components derived from a model developed by Pyle et al. (2017).

  1. Title and Citation

  2. Facts of the Case

  3. Issues

  4. Decisions (Holdings)

  5. Reasoning (Rationale)

Title and Citation

The title of the case shows who is opposing whom. The name of the person or party who initiated legal action (i.e., Plaintiff) in that particular court will always appear first.

The citation tells how to locate the reporter of the case in the appropriate case reporter. If you know only the title of the case, the citation to it can be found using the case digest covering that court, through Google Scholar, or one of the electronic legal databases subscribed to by the library (Westlaw or LEXIS-NEXIS).

Facts of the Case

In your own words:

  • What was the incident that brought the case before the court?

  • Who are the people involved?

  • What laws/regulations were broken?

The fact section of a good brief will include the following elements:

  • A one-sentence description of the nature of the case, to serve as an introduction.

  • A statement of the relevant law, with quotation marks or underlining to draw attention to the key words or phrases that are in dispute.

  • A summary of the complaint (in a civil case) or the indictment (in a criminal case) plus relevant evidence and arguments presented in court to explain who did what to whom and why the case was thought to involve illegal conduct.

  • A summary of actions taken by the lower courts, for example: defendant convicted; conviction upheld by appellate court; Supreme Court granted certiorari.


 What is the basic legal question regarding what specific provision of law that is to be decided in the case?

  • In the form of a question (e.g. “Do citizens have the right to….?”)

  • Concise and in your own simplified words!

When noting issues, it may help to phrase them in terms of questions that can be answered with a precise “yes” or “no.”

For example, the famous case of Brown v. Board of Education involved the applicability of a provision of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to a school board’s practice of excluding black pupils from certain public schools solely due to their race. The precise wording of the Amendment is “no state shall... deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”  A good brief would begin by identifying the key phrases from this amendment and deciding which of them were really at issue in this case. Assuming that there was no doubt that the school board was acting as the State, and that Miss Brown was a “person within its jurisdiction,” then the key issue would be “Does the exclusion of students from a public school solely on the basis of race amount to a denial of ‘equal protection of the laws’?”


The decision, or holding, is the court’s answer to a question presented to it for answer by the parties involved or raised by the court itself in its own reading of the case. There are narrow procedural holdings, for example, “case reversed and remanded,” broader substantive holdings which deal with the interpretation of the Constitution, statutes, or judicial doctrines. If the issues have been drawn precisely, the holdings can be stated in simple “yes” or “no” answers or in short statements taken from the language used by the court.

  • How did the court resolve the legal issue stated?

  • What action did the court take?

Note the following vocabulary for appellate courts:

  • Affirmed = The appellate court agrees with the opinion of the lower court

  • Reversed = The appellate court disagrees with the opinion of the lower court

  • Remanded The case is sent back to the court from which it came for further action


You now should describe the court's rationale for each holding. This section of the case brief may be the most important because you must understand the court's reasoning to analyze it and to apply it to other fact situations.

The reasoning, or rationale, is the chain of argument which led the judges in either a majority or a dissenting opinion to rule as they did.  This should be outlined point by point in numbered sentences or paragraphs.

  • Why did the court reach the decision it did?

  • What arguments and legal principles justify the decision?

Case Brief Resources

Dwyer, Stephen, Leonard J. Feldman & Ryan P. McBride (2008). How to Write, Edit, and Review Persuasive Briefs: Seven Guidelines from One Judge and Two Lawyers. Seattle University Law Review, v31, p417-429. Located at:

Makdisi, Michael & John Makdisi (2009) “How to write a case brief for law school.” Excerpt reproduced from Introduction to the Study of Law: Cases and Materials, Third Edition (LexisNexis 2009), located at:

Pyle C., K. Killoran, and M. Richards (2017).  “How to Brief a Case.”  Student Tutorials, Lloyd Sealy Library, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, located at:

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