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Ch. 2

  • (6)

    Update your research; and

  • (7)

    Cite cases.



If you are familiar with an issue you may be able to skip some steps, although we recommended that you follow all seven steps for each research issue. This way, you can be sure that you have researched your question completely and accurately.

Remember to take careful notes during your research. Your notes will provide a record of your research and will help you to avoid losing information. Careful note-taking is key to successful legal research.

(a) Analyze the Problem

Your case will begin with a story, not a precise series of legal issues. While you will eventually translate the story into legal issues, you must first confirm the facts of your story. If you are preparing to appeal your criminal conviction, you must first review all the evidence from the trial court transcript. If you are filing a civil case (for example, if you are suing the prison for use of excessive force), you should gather as much information as possible about what happened, especially written documentation (medical records, complaints you have filed, etc.). As your research progresses, you will need to look at the facts again to determine which ones are most important.

If you are planning to appeal a lower court decision, remember that the appellate court will accept the facts as found by the lower court. Challenging the factual findings of the lower court is very difficult (see footnote 1 in this Chapter). Therefore, you should research your legal issues as they apply to the facts that the lower court found.

Once you have a firm grasp of the facts of your case, you should examine the legal issues they raise. In doing so, you should start by asking yourself the following three questions:

  • (1)

    What are the legal issues that I want to raise?;

  • (2)

    Which court has the power to hear my case and rule on the issues I will raise?; and

  • (3)

    If the court accepts the merits of my legal arguments and rules in my favor, does the court have the power to award me the relief that I seek (such as award me money, reverse my conviction, or force someone else to take a specific action)?

The last question is whether the court can grant you your requested remedy. Remedies are discussed in detail in Chapter 9 and Chapters 13–17 of the JLM. The remainder of this Chapter deals with the first two questions.

The first question goes to the heart of your case: what legal issues do you want the court to consider? To answer, you should look first at the general areas of law in your case. Is your case about arrest? bail? parole?

In a civil case, you need to find out what you will have to prove in order to show that the defendant is liable for each claim you are asserting. (In civil cases, you are the plaintiff and each person or prison you are suing is a defendant.) You should also be prepared to rebut (argue against) any defenses the defendant makes. You will find much of this information in case law, but statutes may also be important.

If you are appealing a criminal conviction, you should focus on errors made by the trial court. You should review secondary sources covering arrest and trial practices to learn the most common arrest and trial errors. Then you should thoroughly review the lower court proceedings and the judge’s decision in your case to find any areas of possible error. Conducting focused research on the laws applicable to your case will help you to figure out whether an error was made. While this Chapter focuses on how to conduct the legal research that is necessary for your appeal, you should also read Chapter 9 of the JLM, “Appealing Your Conviction or Sentence.” Chapter 9 contains important information such as how to file your appeal, time limitations you might face, and your right to have a lawyer.

As you are deciding which issues to investigate, it may be helpful to break down the general areas of law into more specific problems. For example, you may start your research in a broad area of law (such as “criminal procedure”) and move to a narrower area (such as “searches incident to arrest”) and ultimately to a precise question (such as, “can a police officer use a “choke hold” to arrest a suspect and search for drugs?”). It is easier to research a narrow issue and build it into a larger case than to try to research the entire case right away.

Once you have a legal question, you must ask which court has jurisdiction to hear it. As discussed in Part B(1) of this Chapter, there are both territorial (geographic) and subject matter limits on a court’s power. You must bring your action or appeal in a court that has jurisdiction to hear it, or your case will be dismissed. Territorial jurisdiction for a trial court will depend on where the alleged incident took place. For

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