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Michigan Bar Journal, March, 2006
|To Be or Not to Be [a Lawyer]
That is the Question
FIRAC: An ELEMENTary Approach to Legal Reasoning
Table of Contents
2.1 An introduction to reading and understanding judicial opinions.
After making a decision, a court may write a judicial opinion explaining why it reached the conclusion it did. Reading these judicial opinions (commonly called “cases”) is an integral part of learning and practicing law. Law textbooks include cases which students are assigned to read and expected to discuss in class. Lawyers, judges, and scholars research cases to improve their understanding of a law and formulate a position. Within the field of law, the standard practice is to support legal arguments with citations to relevant cases.
Acquiring the perspective, background knowledge, and skills necessary to comprehend judicial opinions takes time and effort. Unless you are an exception, you will struggle and get frustrated in the beginning. That’s the bad news. The good news is that understanding judicial opinions becomes easier with practice and experience. The better news is that the materials in this section will accelerate your progress up the learning curve by introducing fundamental terminology, concepts, and techniques and offering opportunities to practice.
The starting point – View a judicial opinion as a FIRAC analysis.
Judicial opinions contain many different types of information which can be organized and expressed in many different ways. Yet every case is, at its core, a FIRAC analysis. If you are fortunate, the court will clearly perform each step in order. It will begin by stating the facts of the case. Then it will declare the law issue and quote the rule. The application will follow. An element of the rule will be highlighted, relevant facts will be referred to, and one or more legal reasoning techniques will be used to determine whether the element is satisfied. (If more than one element is in dispute, each will be addressed sequentially.) Finally, the court will announce its conclusion.
But don’t be surprised if the format and phrasing of an opinion does not match the model. The steps may be presented in a different order. Or more than once. Or split up, with part of one step performed in one place and part in another. (For example, the issue may be given before the facts. The conclusion may be stated at the beginning and the end. Facts may appear early in the opinion and then be repeated or supplemented in the application.) A court may use labels or terminology different from mine – or none at all. (For example, if a court writes “The issue before us is ....”, is the court referring to the law issue or an element issue? “Requirement” is a common synonym for “element;” “question” is a common synonym for “issue.” An issue may be expressed as a statement or a contention instead of a question. A court may not announce what FIRAC step it is performing – it will just do it and assume the reader can recognize what it is doing.)
To add to the difficulty and potential confusion, a judicial opinion will almost certainly contain some non-FIRAC information. This information can be helpful and is sometimes essential to understanding the court’s FIRAC analysis. But it is not part of the analysis. For example, an appellate court opinion will typically include some procedural history, such as the identity of the court that previously heard the case and its decision. This procedural history is not part of the facts (although beginners frequently treat it so), nor is it part of any other FIRAC step. However, it can help the reader understand the conclusion (among other things). If the appellate court’s conclusion is “AFFIRMED,” you know it agreed with the lower court’s decision. But what was that decision? The procedural history provides the answer.
Because judicial opinions are FIRAC analyses, the better you understand FIRAC, the easier it will be to follow what a court has written and grasp its significance. You will be better able to recognize each step being performed regardless of the order in which it appears, its location in the opinion, or the phrasing that is used. The vocabulary (especially the legal terminology) and reasoning will make more sense. Your capacity to aggregate, reorganize, and rephrase the content in a way that increases clarity and boosts recall will improve. You are less likely to be sidetracked or confused by extraneous information that can be safely discounted or ignored.
Furthermore, since every judicial opinion is an example of a FIRAC analysis, each one you read provides an opportunity to enhance your understanding of FIRAC and become more proficient at doing a FIRAC analysis (which further improves your ability to understand the next case you read). Like aging, the incremental change may not be obvious from one day to next. But with the passage of enough time, the transformation will be apparent.
An Example of a Judicial Opinion
Don’t immediately start reading the opinion. First, take a moment to note its general appearance and format, remembering to view it as a FIRAC analysis. To help you see what is there, I have added labels in the left hand margin to identify the parts of the opinion. In addition, I have used different colors to highlight the text of the various FIRAC steps.
As you read the opinion, make a conscious effort to associate the different types of content with their labels. For example, when reading the facts, think to yourself “This is what a statement of facts looks like.” and relate the actual wording used to state the facts in this case to the abstract definition of “facts.” (The definition of facts from the previous section: “The facts of the case describe what happened to cause the dispute. The facts may describe behavior, who or what engaged in that behavior, the reasons for the behavior, when and where the behavior occurred, circumstances at the time the behavior occurred, who or what was affected, how they were affected, and so on.” ) Do you see how the facts in the following case describe “when the behavior occurred” (October 30, 1981), “where the behavior occurred" (the parking lot of Elmer’s Super Value grocery store in Escanaba, Michigan), and other aspects of what happened?
Besides understanding what facts look like, it is also helpful to know what they don’t look like. Facts are not procedural history. They are not issues or laws or applications (although facts may be stated within applications) or conclusions. Appreciating and paying attention to the differences means you will be less likely to mistake one thing for another. Your goal is to understand “facts” (and “issue” and “rule” and “application” and “conclusion” and more) well enough that you will know them when you see them in an opinion, regardless of the organization, phrasing, location, or context.
Continue to Section 2.2