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POLS 4720E (Criminal Procedure) - Wilhelm: Case Law

Criminal Procedure

Legal Terminology

brief is a written legal document that is presented to the court arguing why a party to the case should have a decision in their favor.

  • Merit briefs are filed disclosing the facts and legal arguments of a case.  These are normally filed by the parties to the case.
  • Amicus curiae briefs ("friend of the court") are filed by persons/groups not directly affilated with the case. These groups/persons often have an invested interest in the outcome.

Headnotes are summaries of the key legal points.  Headnotes are useful for a quick understanding of the decision, but they are the editor's remarks and not the court's.  Footnotes, however, are written by the justices on the court.

An Opinion is an explanation of the decision of the court.  In the Supreme Court opinions are catagorized thus:

  • Marjority opinion is written by a majority of members on the court.  It is from this vote where the legal decision and future precedent comes.  It explains the decision of the court on the matter at hand.
  • Dissenting opinion is written by the minority judges who voted against the decision.  While not legally binding, the dissenting opinion explains the opposing argument made by other members of the court.
  • Concurring opinion is written by a judge who voted in the majority, but for different reasons, which are set out in the concurring opinion.  They are not legally binding precedent, but explains the reasoning of that judge in the decision they made.
  • Per curiam decision/opinion ("through the court") is written collectively and anonymously by the members of the majority.  A per curiam does not list the individual author of the decision, but any dissenting and concurring decisions are signed.

syllabus summarizes the points decided in the case.

Good glossary for legal terminology.

Pronouncing Dictionary of the United States Supreme Court

Looking up summaries of court cases

Background: (available online)

1) Cretacci, M. (2008). Supreme Court case briefs in criminal procedure. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield. (available via HathiTrust.  Click on Log In to access, and then on the "Check Out" button in the yellow banner)

this is probably the best alternative to the textbook that you have access to

Here are some reference books available online.  You can search for your specific case or you can search by concept (for example, privacy)

2) Hemmens, C., Del Carmen, R., & Brody, D. (2010). Criminal procedure and the Supreme Court a guide to the major decisions on search and seizure, privacy, and individual rights. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield.

3) Vile, J. R. (2010). Essential Supreme Court decisions: Summaries of leading cases in U.S. constitutional law 15th ed. Lanham [Md.]: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.  

4) Legal Division Reference Book

* A reference book for federal officers, this book focuses on criminal procedure rights and the case law associated with them.

Looking up Court Opinions

To find the actual opinions of the court cases you will be reading, there are lots of online resources.  For background on the cases and links to the opinion I prefer Oyez because it is easier to use, and doesn't have adds.


Using Oyez:

Use the search box at the top of the screen to search for individual cases:



Find your case in the list:



After you click you'll see information about the case, as well as a link to the Opinion (click on View Case)



Supreme Court Briefs and other document

Access briefs (written by the petitioners and responders arguing the merits of their case) for seminal cases going back to 1832 using the following databases:
Legal documents associated with Supreme Court cases.
Find briefs, dockets, joint appendixes, oral arguments, opinions and other documents for U.S. Supreme Court cases from 1975-present.

Supreme Court Resources - Books

If you want to look up more in depth background information about Supreme Court cases, here are a few books:

Levy, L. W. (2000). Encyclopedia of the American constitution. 2nd ed. / New York: Macmillan Reference USA.

Savage, D. G. (2009). The Supreme Court and the powers of the American government (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press.

Your Librarian

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Elizabeth White
Miller Learning Center,
Room 373