Reading and Applying Case Law: A View from the Bench
This is a two-hour seminar offered to a limited number of second and third-year
students by Justice Richard Ransom, a retired Chief Justice of the New Mexico Supreme
Court. The students read groups of published opinions authored by Justice Ransom on
such issues as duty under tort law, strict liability, the drafting of jury instructions for
successive torts, implied employment contracts, the parol evidence rule in ambiguous
contracts, statutory construction, and liberty interests under state constitutional law.
Familiarity with these subjects aids the students’ progress in the seminar, but neither
facility with, nor the teaching of, substantive law is the purpose of the seminar.
The purpose of the seminar is to teach the reader of case law to understand,
evaluate, and articulate the rule of law or principle for which the case is read in full. This
is a little different than reading casebook extracts for black letter law. Principles of sound
reasoning are applied to analyze the rationale of the case. Ambiguity and vagueness are
identified. The student learns to succinctly translate the opinion’s essential position into
the student’s own words and graphics.
The course meets for one hour on Tuesday and Thursday. The first week is
devoted to the exploration of various approaches to judging, using terms such as
“values,” “beliefs,” “pragmatism,” and “positivism.” At the core of this discussion is
jurisprudential responsibility for predictability and fairness (treating like cases alike),
adherence to principle, and the importance of plausible rationale, both for the loosing
party and for the establishment of legal principle. The purpose of these two introductory
sessions is to introduce the judge in the context of judicial selection and independence,
diversity in how judges may judge, and the temporizing effect of collegiality on a multijudge
On Thursdays, the students are assigned a scenario and problem to solve by
reading a specific one or two of the majority opinions, special concurrences, or dissents
authored by Justice Ransom. Each student responds by mid-day on Monday with a five or
six-hundred word memo and explanatory graphic. The student also turns in at that time a
list of questions arising from the reading of the assigned case or cases. These are
questions of terminology, procedure or judicial practice the student would like discussed,
regardless of whether germane to the problem assigned. These questions are reserved for
the next Thursday class.
At the Tuesday class, Justice Ransom engages the students in Socratic dialogue to
“think the thing” of the cases that have been read to resolve the assigned problem. He
teases out the students’ understanding of legal terminology, rules, and black letter law. He
may comment on the student memos when instructive, and he develops, through dialogue
with the students, an outline, diagram or flow chart by which the pertinent issues can be
seen in relation to the general rules, exceptions, and legal terminology that inform the
resolution of the problem. In addition to the graphic, Justice Ransom provides his own
exemplar memo in response to the problem addressed in the student memos. Importantly,
with respect to the rationale of the assigned case, Justice Ransom explores whether
conclusions are adequately justified and whether the opinion has evaded principles of
sound reasoning. Ambiguity and vagueness are identified.
Justice Ransom will, from time to time, distribute internal court memos that give
insight into the structure of the opinion in response to the briefs and oral argument of the
parties, the conferences of the court following oral argument, responses to the circulation
of opinion drafts, and the intra-chambers work of the judge and the judge’s clerks.
On Thursday, there may be a reprise of the topics addressed – or missed – on
Tuesday. Then, the students’ written questions are addressed. Time is reserved for the
students each to ask orally one question yet unanswered to the student’s satisfaction.
The course is graded. Forty percent of the grade is based on a student’s weekly
written assignments. Twenty percent of the grade is based on class participation. Forty
percent of the grade is based on a final examination.