Learning Legal Interpretation

Vol. 40 No. 2


Bryan A. Garner is the president of LawProse, Inc. He is the author of many widely used books, including Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges (with Justice Antonin Scalia) and Garner’s Modern American Usage. He is the editor in chief of all current editions of Black’s Law Dictionary.

What is the most important lawyerly skill you might acquire in law school? I say it's the art of reading cases knowledgeably––especially cases involving textual interpretation.

It’s unfortunate that textual interpretation is largely neglected in legal education. Professor Mary Ann Glendon of has written: “Most of our fellow citizens . . . would be astonished if they knew how little training the average law student receives in dealing with enacted law.” Yet almost every law class should teach it because textual interpretation pervades every case involving a statute, rule, regulation, contract, will, or other document.

Here I will show you a practical way of mastering the art of reading cases. It differs from the usual case-briefing methods by focusing on the battle over interpreting the critical text—what the arguments are, which wins, and why. I suggest that you make a habit of reading cases with this mind-set. Students who are already using this technique report that it has greatly enhanced their scholastic performance.

These are the categories you must become proficient at spotting:

  • Case name: The citation must be in proper form (either Bluebook or ALWD).
  • Principle of statutory construction at issue: Your best statement of the interpretive doctrine illustrated by the case.
  • Language at issue: The critical part must be a direct quotation from the text concerned—but only as much as is needed to understand the problem.
  • The source of the problem: A statement of why there’s a practical difficulty presented by the language at issue.
  • What plaintiff [name] said it means: The plaintiff’s contention about the language.
  • What defendant [name] said it means: The defendant’s contention about the language.
  • What the court held: Statement of what the court said the language means.
  • Rationales: Enumerated as (1), (2), (3).
  • Notable points about the case: Anything you might usefully add.


On this page is an actual example prepared by Ben West of SMU Dedman School of Law. You’ll see that he highlights the analysis with great efficiency—it’s a great example of tightly edited legal prose.

Preparing case briefs in this way means seeing cases the way lawyers see them. It’s a big part of what we mean by thinking like a lawyer. The lawyerly way of examining a case is to focus on the language at issue and the arguments about that language. Only after you’ve understood these fundamentals should you even consider policy rationales, consequences, and the like.

How did I discover the technique I’ve shown you? It was simple: I’d been working on my second book with Justice Antonin Scalia—it’s called Reading Law: The Legal Interpretation of Texts—and we needed plentiful examples. Luckily, SMU Dedman School of Law affords me five research assistants each semester (they’re called Garner Law Scholars, or GLSers). I needed them to brief cases, hundreds of them, in a way that would allow Justice Scalia and me to determine at a glance (1) what a given case was about, and (2) whether it illustrated a principle usefully—
either because it was a clearly wise or unwise interpretation of a text. So I devised this method for my GLSers to brief cases to meet these requirements.

Learn to scrutinize cases astutely—knowing what you’re looking for—and you’ll have an edge on those who read less purposefully.



Case name:

United States v. Fifty-Three Eclectus Parrots, 685 F.2d 1131 (9th Cir. 1982).

Writing Judge: Judge William C. Canby                      Dissenters: None Listed


Principle of statutory construction at issue:

Words should be given their plain meaning.


Language at issue:

“If the laws or regulations of any country . . . restrict the . . . exportation to the of any wild mammal or bird . . . no such mammal or bird . . . shall . . . be imported into the from such country . . . .” 19 U.S.C. § 1527(b).


The source of the problem:

The appellant, Allen, raised birds for a living and attempted to import 53 eclectus parrots from Singapore. But the birds originated in Indonesia, which has prohibited the export of eclectus parrots. classified this species as “wild.” The birds were seized by customs officials, and Allen brought suit to recover them.


What the appellant (Allen and his 53 parrots) said it means:

The birds were not “wild” within the meaning of § 1527. Breeders have had some success in breeding the birds in captivity, and some of the seized birds show signs of having been bred in captivity. Since they are not wild, the birds are not subject to the importation restrictions.


What the appellee (United States) said it means:

The designation of a bird as “wild” in § 1527 applies to the bird as a species, not an individual animal. Since eclectus parrots from are considered “wild,” these birds are subject to forfeiture.


What the court held:

The determination of whether a bird is “wild” is based upon the bird’s species, not the circumstances surrounding an individual bird.



Plain meaning should be used to interpret statutes. The court accepted the government’s definition, comparing it to the Lacey Act, which “defines ‘wild’ to mean creatures that ‘normally are found in a wild state.’” 685 F.2d at 1137 (citing 18 U.S.C. § 42(a)(2)). The court concluded that “contrary interpretation would create obvious enforcement difficulties.”


Notable points about the case:

This case is useful because it demonstrates the court’s unwillingness to make this type of decision on a case-by-case basis. By labeling the entire species as “wild,” the court improves judicial efficiency by discouraging future requests to determine if an individual animal is “wild” by definition.



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