Legal Sources for Not-a-Lawyerslearn some law without totally warping your brain
When non-lawyer folks ask me about reading some law for themselves, four sources come up again and again:
Supreme Court Syllabi
The US Supreme Court has an in-house publishing department called the “Reporter of Decisions” that adds outline summaries, or “syllabi”, to the fronts of all major published court decisions. For example, the first eight pages of the recent abortion decision in the Dobbs case are all syllabus.
Don’t get turned off by the cryptic, sentence-like runs of italicized names, abbreviations, and numbers. These are legal “citations” that reference texts like other court decisions, statutes, regulations, scholarly articles, and so on. It’s perfectly fine to skim the citations when reading for a general sense of what was decided and how it was justified.
Note that the Reporter usually summarizes only the “opinion of the court”—the written decision that a majority of justices signed onto. There may also be “concurring” and “dissenting” opinions in the PDF, agreeing or disagreeing with the opinion of the court. For example, the dissenting opinion of Justice Breyer in Dobbs begins on PDF page 148.
Don’t be afraid of the large PDF page counts. Some opinions run long. But the Reporter uses generous margins and type, designed for printing booklets or marking up. The justices also have a habit of heaping on supporting material at the ends of some opinions, like the appendices at the ends of both majority and dissent in Dobbs. They take a lot of pages. They’re rarely worth more than a quick skim.
Model Jury Instructions
When lawsuits go to trial before a jury, the judge ends up giving the jury a big packet of instructions for how to decide each legal claim in the case. Because these instructions get used so much, and because screwing them up can require a trial do-over, appeals courts often publish big books of model jury instructions. In other words, the appeals courts themselves publish summaries of legal rules specifically for non-lawyers to read, understand, and apply.
Do not get too excited. I wish I could say they went as far as using actual English. But at least if it’s still legalese, it comes in smaller bites.
Here in California, both the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and the California state courts publish model jury instructions online. They’re organized into criminal-law and civil-law sets, then broken down by subject. The instructions themselves come with comments that cite important cases and statutes.
The Ninth Circuit civil instructions have a whole section on copyright, starting on PDF page 392. The 2022 California civil instructions have a whole series on contracts, starting on PDF page 153.
Examples & Explanations
Most textbooks that law students have to buy are big, expensive, poorly edited faculty bodge-jobs that nobody would pay for otherwise. $150 tomes in fancy binding, often full of typos and formatting errors. It’s a racket. Most legal study guides are also pretty terrible and expensive. The Examples & Explanations series is the exception. As a rule, they’re affordable, thoughtfully written, and carefully edited. How this is possible, I know not still.
E&Es are available for all the mandatory first-year-of-law-school courses, plus most of the common electives at second- and third-year level. If you want an overview of a general area of law, like contracts, intellectual property, or personal tax, this should be your first bet. And you can probably get by with a used copy of an old edition in most fields, especially the first-year subjects.
I personally try to read or review an E&E each year. I’m not embarrassed to admit this, or to shelve the books in my office. I’m embarrassed fundamental review isn’t the norm in my profession.
Legislative Research Services
When it comes to proposed legislation, state and federal, it’s often way easier to read a summary or impact analysis than the text of the project itself, especially when amendments are still flying. Fortunately, many legislatures fund independent, non-partisan research services in-house, whose job it is to analyze bills. These days, the analyses go up online.
At the federal level, that’s the Congressional Research Service. For California, it’s the Senate and Assembly “floor analysis” groups, plus the Legislative Analyst’s Office, that last especially for the budget.
The Congressional Research Service in particular is a really underappreciated resource. They more or less function as a federal public think tank. In addition to guides on specific legislative projects, they often publish background pieces summarizing existing legislation under debate or giving broader context on a whole area of policy. For example, here’s a report on Section 230 from last year. And here’s one from December on the US, Ukraine, and Russia.
It’s your law, people. Don’t let lawyers scare you off of reading it!
Your thoughts and feedback are always welcome by e-mail.
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