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Strengthening Your Legal Arguments Through Effective Case Law

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

Case law, also known as judicial precedent or judge-made law, comprises the body of law formed through judicial decisions by courts. Unlike statutory law, which is enacted by legislative bodies, case law evolves through the outcomes of individual cases, where courts interpret legislation, set legal standards, and resolve disputes. This dynamic system of law plays a foundational role in common law jurisdictions like the United States, where it significantly influences the interpretation and application of laws. The doctrine of stare decisis, or the principle of precedent, mandates that courts must follow the rulings of higher courts within the same jurisdiction in similar cases, ensuring consistency and predictability in legal judgments. 

Incorporating case law into legal arguments not only demonstrates an understanding of the legal landscape surrounding a case but also provides a robust framework for arguing how the law should be applied to a set of facts. Effective use of case law can significantly influence the outcome of legal proceedings, as it allows attorneys to draw parallels between their case and established legal principles or precedents. Citing relevant and authoritative cases enhances the persuasive power of legal arguments, showcasing the attorney’s legal acumen and bolstering the credibility of their position. 

Identifying relevant case law

Identifying relevant case law is a pivotal aspect of crafting compelling legal arguments. With tailored legal databases and resources like CEB’s OnLAW Pro, legal professionals can navigate the expansive terrain of case law with greater precision and efficiency. 

Strategies for Research

Legal Databases and Search Engines: The foundation of legal research lies in leveraging specialized legal databases and search engines. CEB’s OnLAW Pro provides access to extensive archives of case law across jurisdictions. Familiarity with these platforms and their unique search functionalities can significantly streamline the research process.

Keywords and Boolean Search Techniques: Effective research requires the formulation of precise keywords and the use of Boolean search techniques. Keywords should be selected based on the relevant legal issues, statutes, and terminology. Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT) enable the construction of complex search queries, refining search results to include cases that are most pertinent to the legal issue at hand. This strategic use of keywords and operators can drastically reduce the volume of irrelevant results, directing the researcher to the most applicable cases.

Analyzing Relevance

Once potential cases are identified, determining their relevance to the legal argument at hand is crucial. This involves a detailed examination of several factors:

Facts: The facts of a case are paramount in assessing relevance. Cases with fact patterns similar to the issue being addressed are more likely to provide applicable precedents and insights into how a court might view the current case.

Legal Issues and Decisions: The legal issues addressed in a case and the court’s decisions on those issues are critical in evaluating its relevance. Cases that have tackled similar legal questions or interpreted the same statutes can offer valuable precedents for forming arguments.

Recent Cases: The temporal proximity of cases is also a key factor. Recent cases are generally more indicative of the current state of the law and judicial attitudes toward specific legal issues. They can signal shifts in legal reasoning and are often given more weight in arguments.

Focusing on jurisdiction 

Jurisdiction refers to the official power of a court to make legal decisions and judgments. It encompasses both the geographical area and the specific subject matter to which the authority of a court extends. Jurisdictional authority matters immensely because the decisions of a court have binding effect only within its jurisdiction. This is why identifying the jurisdiction relevant to a case is a critical first step in assessing the applicability and persuasive power of precedents.

Hierarchy of Courts

The legal system is structured in a hierarchical manner, with courts at various levels having differing degrees of authority. At the top are supreme courts, whose decisions are final and binding across the jurisdiction. Below them are appellate courts, which review decisions from lower courts, and then trial courts, where cases are initially heard. The authoritative weight of a court’s decision generally increases with its level in this hierarchy. Decisions from higher courts within a jurisdiction are binding on lower courts in the same jurisdiction, guiding the application of law and the outcomes of future cases.

Binding Precedents and Persuasive Precedents

A key distinction in the use of case law is between binding precedents and persuasive precedents. Binding precedents are decisions from higher courts within the same jurisdiction as the case at hand. These decisions must be followed by courts lower in the hierarchy. In contrast, persuasive precedents come from courts of equal or lesser rank, or from courts in different jurisdictions. While not obligatory, these decisions can influence a court if they present compelling reasoning or if they interpret similar legal principles.

Selecting Authoritative Cases

When selecting cases to support a legal argument, it’s crucial to prioritize those with the most authoritative weight. This involves:

1. Identifying the jurisdiction relevant to your case and focusing on precedents from within that jurisdiction.

2. Considering the level of the court that issued the decision, with higher courts providing more authoritative precedents.

3. Analyzing whether the precedent is binding or persuasive in your jurisdiction and tailoring your argument accordingly.

4. Paying attention to the recency of decisions, as more recent rulings can reflect current legal interpretations and trends.

Structuring the Argument

Effectively incorporating case law into legal arguments is both an art and a science, requiring meticulous selection, analysis, and presentation of precedents. The structuring of legal arguments using case law is pivotal, ensuring that each cited case advances the argument and clarifies the application of law to the facts at hand.

The IRAC method (Issue, Rule, Application, Conclusion) and its variations serve as fundamental frameworks for structuring legal arguments. This approach begins by identifying the issue at hand, then stating the Rule (law or precedent) that applies. The Application section involves analyzing the case facts in light of the rule, and demonstrating how the precedent supports the argument. Finally, the Conclusion ties the analysis back to the main question, providing a clear answer supported by the case law presented.

Issue: Clearly define the legal question or problem.

Rule: Introduce relevant case law and statutes that govern the issue.

Application: Discuss how the facts of your case align with or differ from those of your cited cases, demonstrating the relevance of the precedents to your argument.

Conclusion: Summarize how the case law supports your position on the issue.

Citing Cases Properly

Proper citation of cases is crucial for credibility and authority in legal writing. Citations should follow the specific format prescribed by the relevant legal style guide (e.g., Bluebook, ALWD). Beyond mere formality, accurate citations ensure that the precedents are easily verifiable, allowing others to examine the source material directly. This not only lends credibility to the argument but also respects the reader’s need for verification and further research.

Handling Conflicting Precedents

When faced with conflicting precedents, a key strategy is to distinguish the cases based on their facts, jurisdiction, or the specific legal questions addressed. Highlighting these differences allows an attorney to argue why certain precedents should be given more weight or considered more relevant to the current case. Additionally, focusing on the most recent cases or those from higher courts within the same jurisdiction can help prioritize which precedents to follow.

Interpreting Broad or Vague Legal Standards

Legal arguments often stumble upon the challenge of applying case law to broad or vaguely defined legal standards. These standards can leave significant room for interpretation, making it difficult to predict how a court might apply them to the specifics of a case. This uncertainty is compounded when existing precedents interpret the standards in varied ways, offering no clear consensus on their application.

To tackle the ambiguity of broad legal standards, legal professionals should focus on constructing a narrative that aligns closely with the spirit and purpose of the law. This involves a deep dive into the legislative history, the rationale behind the legal standard, and any guiding principles outlined in relevant case law. By synthesizing these elements, attorneys can craft arguments that not only align with the broader legal context but also present a compelling interpretation of how the standard should be applied to their case. 

In crafting strong legal arguments based on relevant case law, lawyers can rely on CEB’s wide range of online services, including:

CEB Practitioner: CEB’s Practitioner Tool is a comprehensive online resource designed for trial lawyers. It offers a vast array of case law, statutes, and practical guides across various legal fields. This tool streamlines research, enhances legal practice efficiency, and provides up-to-date information, making it invaluable for lawyers seeking quick and reliable legal insights. All Practitioner resources are written by California lawyers, for California lawyers. 

OnLAW Pro: CEB’s all-in-one legal research solution with authoritative practice guides, OnLAW Pro is written by California lawyers for California lawyers. All practice guides are fully integrated with CEB’s primary law research tool, allowing you to research California, Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and U.S. Supreme Court case law, as well as California statutes and the California Constitution. OnLAW also comes with TrueCite®, CEB’s powerful case law citator. 

MCLE Solutions: CEB’s MCLE solutions, including CLE Passport and CEB’s CLE Compliance Package, provide a robust platform for new trial lawyers seeking to fulfill their CLE requirements. These solutions offer a diverse range of courses, covering various legal topics and practice areas. Designed for convenience and flexibility, the programs are available online, allowing attorneys to access high-quality, accredited educational content anytime, anywhere. CEB’s MCLE Solutions are an ideal blend of practicality and expertise, ensuring legal professionals stay informed, compliant, and at the forefront of their field.

Sample Templates and Form: With over 50 billion filings made, CEB’s Sample Templates & Forms offer a seamless solution for creating, printing, and storing these critical legal documents. Subscribers benefit from early access to the latest form updates, ensuring compliance and preventing filing rejections due to outdated forms.

CEB’s range of products are designed to meet unique research needs. Our tools offer unparalleled support in case law research, legal analysis, and staying updated with the latest judicial decisions. By choosing CEB, you gain access to a wealth of knowledge, enabling you to navigate complex legal landscapes with confidence and precision.