How to read Supreme Court decisions

Reading decisions of the Supreme Court (pieces of jurisprudence) is one of the main themes in the life of normal law students. The others are recitations, examinations, textbooks, codals and bad grades.
The suggestion below is only one of the many techniques in reading jurisprudence. It may not work for everyone but it has been used and has shown positive results among members of Project Jurisprudence - Philippines. This suggestion is called "reverse reading" because it starts from the bottom, proceeds to the middle of the case and ends at the first parts thereof. The suggestion is as follows:
  1. Know the main parts of a decision.
  2. Read the fallo first.
  3. Identify the laws involved.
  4. Read the decision or ruling of the Court.
  5. Read the factual antecedents, if still needed.
KNOWING THE MAIN PARTS OF A DECISION. The reason why a law student needs to know the usual or main parts of a decision is to, at least, have a simple map. It is easy to get lost in reading a piece of jurisprudence, especially for those who are doing it for the first time.

The usual main parts of a Supreme Court decision are:
  1. Citation;
  2. Caption;
  3. Ponente;
  4. Nature of the Case;
  5. Factual Background;
  6. Ruling of the Lower Courts;
  7. Ruling of the Court of Appeals (if any) ;
  8. Arguments;
  9. Counter-arguments;
  10. Issues;
  11. Discussion/Ruling of the Supreme Court;
  12. Fallo;
  13. Votes;
  14. Citations; and
  15. Separate Opinions.
Citation, caption. The citation is the case number (e.g., G.R. No. 123456, September 08, 1992) while the caption states the names of the parties and their participation in the case (e.g., AAA, petitioner, v. BBB, respondent. CCC and DDD, intervenors.)

Ponente. The ponente is the one who wrote the decision of the Supreme Court for and in behalf of the majority. Immediately upon arriving at a conclusion regarding the issue or issues in the case, the Court shall assign a Member to write the opinion of the Court. Should the majority vote of the court on such conclusion be different from or contrary to the conclusion arrived at by the ponente, the writing of the new opinion shall be assigned to a ponente chosen by the majority. (A.M. No. 10-4-20-SC)

According to the 1987 Constitution, "The conclusions of the Supreme Court in any case submitted to it for decision en banc or in division shall be reached in consultation before the case is assigned to a Member for the writing of the opinion of the Court. A certification to this effect signed by the Chief Justice shall be issued and a copy thereof attached to the record of the case and served upon the parties. Any Member who took no part, or dissented, or abstained from a decision or resolution must state the reason thereof. The same requirements shall be observed by all lower collegiate courts." (Section 13, Article VIII)

Nature of the case. This is the part where the ponente explains why the case reached the Supreme Court and where it came from. Normally, the remedy is discussed (e.g., Rule 45, Rule 65, etc.), including what judgment, decision, order, resolution or action is being questioned or assailed. 

Factual background, ruling of the lower courts, ruling of the Court of Appeals, arguments and counterarguments. Basically, the factual antecedents (the factual background or backdrop) of the case include what the transpired before the case was filed at the first instance, what transpired during the trial, what orders or rulings were issued by the lower court, whether or not the case reached a higher court, and what such superior court said, ruled or did.

Arguments of the petitioner or appellant and counterarguments of the respondent or appellee are also detailed for the proper understanding of the reader of the contentions from both sides.

Issues. In this part of the case, the writer intelligently streamlines the issues submitted by the parties. It is common for parties to formulate their own list of issues submitted to the court for decision. However, for the purpose of writing the decision, the ponente combines two or three and rejects one or two in order to arrive at a list of issues that are more determinative of the controversy.

If a party or parties submit a good list, the Supreme Court normally adopts it. This is what happened in the case of Fujiki v. Marinay in which the three-item list of issues was adopted by the ponente from the pleadings of the petitioner.

The final issues are then the basis of the next part of the decision: the discussion or ruling of the Supreme Court.

Discussion or ruling of the Supreme Court. Ideally, the discussion meets the issues point by point by methodically giving an answer (e.g., correct or wrong), laying down the legal basis (i.e., law, jurisprudence, etc.) and connecting the facts of the case to the legal basis (conclusion). Take the following as an example.
Issues

1. Did the petitioner violate the rule on hierarchy of courts when he went directly to the Supreme Court via Rule 45 to question the legality of the RTC's denial of his petition for recognition of a foreign arbitral award?

2. xxx

Discussion

No violation of hierarchy of courts

Petitioner did not violate the rule on hierarchy of courts.

A Rule 45 appeal by certiorari is a remedy that allows a party to directly raise to the Supreme Court a pure question of law. There is no need for a motion for reconsideration or for an appeal to the Court of Appeals. (Tuna Processing, Inc. v. Philippine Kingford)

Here, what petitioner raised to the Court was a pure question of law, i.e., whether a law exists allowing courts to recognize a foreign arbitral award. Therefore, the above rule was not violated.
Fallo or dispositive portion. The dispositive portion of a case is usually written this way:
WHEREFORE, we GRANT the petition. The Order dated 31 January 2011 and the Resolution dated 2 March 2011 of the Regional Trial Court, Branch 107, Quezon City, in Civil Case No. Q-11-68582 are REVERSED and SET ASIDE. The Regional Trial Court is ORDERED to REINSTATE the petition for further proceedings in accordance with this Decision.

SO ORDERED.

The fallo is the part of a decision that states the order of the court as a result of the discussions above. It is that part of the decision which the implementer (usually, the sheriff for lower courts) should enforce. As a general rule, when there is a conflict between the body of the decision and its fallo, the fallo prevails.

When there is a conflict between the dispositive portion or fallo of a decision and the opinion of the court contained in the text or body of the judgment, the former prevails over the latter. An order of execution is based on the disposition, not on the body, of the decision. (G.R. No. 109648, November 22, 2001)

Votes. This part merely lists the Members of the Court who concurred with or dissented against the majority opinion. It usually looks like this: "Brion, Del Castillo, Perez, and Perlas-Bernabe, JJ., concur."

Citations. Citations are those listed at the end of the decision after the fallo and the votes. They are also called "footnotes." They either tell the basis of a certain word, phrase or paragraph or give more explanations.

Separate opinions. The majority opinion is the controlling one but nothing prevents other Members of the Court from writing a separate opinion which may either be a concurring one or a dissenting one. A concurring opinion largely agrees with the conclusions or results of the majority opinion but disagrees on the legal basis, the arguments made and other matters. 

On the other hand, a dissenting opinion is one which takes the view that different conclusions or results should have been arrived at.

A Member who disagrees with the majority opinion, its conclusions, and the disposition of the case may submit to the Chief Justice or Division Chairperson a dissenting opinion, setting forth the reason for such dissent. A Member who agrees with the result of the case, but based on different reason or reasons may submit a separate opinion; a concurrence "in the result" should state the reason for the qualified concurrence. A Member who agrees with the main opinion, but opts to express other reasons for concurrence may submit a concurring opinion. The dissenting, separate, or concurring opinion must be within one week from the date the writer of the majority opinion presents the decision for the signature of the Members. (A.M. No. 10-4-20-SC)

READ THE FALLO FIRST. Reading the fallo first gives the reader a spoiler (in a good way) as to the results of the case. It is very difficult, especially for first timers, to understand the discussions on a piece of jurisprudence without knowing who actually won and how the Court actually decided the case in the end.

If the fallo says, "WHEREFORE, we GRANT the petition," the reader's frame of mind while reading the rest of the text will be informed that the petitioner won and whatever arguments the respondent has are rejected either partly or wholly by the Court. This way, there will be no confusion as to whose legal arguments should be given more attention.

If the fallo says, "The Order dated 31 January 2011 and the Resolution dated 2 March 2011 of the Regional Trial Court, Branch 107, Quezon City, in Civil Case No. Q-11-68582 are REVERSED and SET ASIDE," the reader is likewise informed that the Regional Trial Court's Order and Resolution are found wrong or illegal which is why the Supreme Court reversed and set them aside. From this viewpoint, the text becomes clear and what remains in the mind of the reader is "Why did the Supreme Court decide the case this way?" 

IDENTIFY THE LAWS INVOLVED. Identifying the laws involved is important. Is this a family law issue or a political law issue? Is this a tax remedy issue or a remedial law issue?

A Supreme Court decision can touch on different fields of law, depending on how complicated the factual matters are. For example, a case about death benefits, which is a labor law issue, may touch on the meaning of death, which is a persons law issue. Another example is when an action for damages is filed by one corporation against another corporation. This, of course, requiring a reading of torts law and corporation law.

When studying a piece of jurisprudence, always remember the purpose of reading it. Law professors normally want their students to zero in on certain issues under particular fields of law.

READ THE DECISION OR THE RULING OF THE COURT. After reading the fallo, the reader need not go straight to the top of the text. Instead, he should go to the part that says: "Decision of the Court" or "Ruling of the Court." This is where the ponente discusses the ratio decidendi and meets each issue.

The reason why reading the factual background (facts of the case) of the case is not important at this point is the fact that the discussion actually mentions the facts of the case. For example, in the case Fujiki v. Marinay, the following can be found in the "discussion" part:

"There is therefore no reason to disallow Fujiki to simply prove as a fact the Japanese Family Court judgment nullifying the marriage between Marinay and Maekara on the ground of bigamy. While the Philippines has no divorce law, the Japanese Family Court judgment is fully consistent with Philippine public policy, as bigamous marriages are declared void from the beginning under Article 35(4) of the Family Code. Bigamy is a crime under Article 349 of the Revised Penal Code. Thus, Fujiki can prove the existence of the Japanese Family Court judgment in accordance with Rule 132, Sections 24 and 25, in relation to Rule 39, Section 48(b) of the Rules of Court."

From the above, it can be inferred that the case is about declaration of nullity of marriage. It seems that bigamy is involved and the issue of proving a foreign judgment was also raised. An intelligent reader can easily theorize the facts of the case from the discussion alone.

READ THE FACTUAL BACKGROUND, IF STILL NEEDED. If other factual matters remain unclear, it is time to read the narration of the factual antecedents.

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