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Journalism & Public Relations: JOUR 430

How to Read a Court Case

At the top is the name of the citation for the case: e.g. 403 U.S. 713, and the name of the case, e.g. NEW YORK TIMES CO. v. UNITED STATES and the court: e.g. SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES and the dates the case was argued and decided.

Next come the Headnotes. You probably won't need these. 

Next comes a brief summary of the case, including the decision, which justices voted on which side, and which justices wrote opinions. Look for words like:

  • affirmed (agreed with earlier court)
  • reversed (disagreed with earlier court)
  • remand (sent back to lower court for another action)

Next come the opinion(s) of the court. This is the heart of the case. Often they will be lengthy and relatively elegant. Other times, it will be short and in legalese, as in this case. If there is more than one opinion, look for CONCUR or DISSENT.

Last are citations and footnotes. Again, you will probably not need them.

Finding a Legal Case


  1. If you don't have it, there are two easy ways to find it:
    1. Look in your textbook.    
    2. On Google: Search for "citation" and the name of your case (e.g. citation "Near v. Minnesota"). This will often take you to a Wikipedia page for the case. Use it ONLY to find the citation, not for the case itself.  
  2.  Once you have the legal citation, go to the WestlawNext database to look up the case. 
    1. Put your legal citation in the top search box. Where it says All Federal on the right, it's a good idea to go in and also check All States. This will search both federal and state court cases.   

Journalism & Public Relations Librarian