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How To Read a Supreme Court Opinion

The Supreme Court of the United States plays a fundamental role in protecting the values enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. But reading a Supreme Court opinion can be complicated and intimidating. This article provides a general guide to reading a U.S. Supreme Court opinion.

In most cases, a Supreme Court opinion consists of the parts below.

Syllabus

The syllabus describes the facts of the case. It also explains the procedure of how the case reached the Supreme Court. The syllabus summarizes the Supreme Court case, but it's not part of the opinion.

Main Opinion/Binding Decision

The main opinion gives the official decision. It also provides a legal analysis of how the Justices came to that decision. This main opinion could be:

  • Unanimous: When all the justices agree on the decision as well as the rationale for the decision
  • Majority opinion: When more than half the justices agree on the decision
  • Plurality opinion: When there is no majority but a plurality

In rare cases, there may be a tie. This can occur if there's a vacancy or when a justice abstains from a case. In the event of a tie, the lower court's decision will stand.

Usually, the Chief Justice or an Associate Justice will write the majority opinion. But sometimes, the Court publishes a per curiam opinion. A per curiam opinion does not specify the justice who wrote the opinion.

Disposition

Usually, the Court will outline what action it will take at the end of the main opinion. This is called a disposition. A disposition may include:

  • Affirming the lower court's decision
  • Overturning the lower court's ruling
  • Sending the case back to the lower court (remand the case)

If the Court does not remand the case, the case is over.

Concurring Opinion

One or more of the justices may write additional opinions of the court. A justice may write a concurring opinion if they agree with the outcome of the main opinion but base their decision on different legal reasoning.

Dissenting Opinion

Justices who disagree with the decision and the reasoning may write dissenting opinions.

Concurring and dissenting opinions don't affect the outcome of the case. But they're important. Supreme Court opinions are analyzed in future cases. Concurring and dissenting opinions may provide an alternate interpretation of the laws.

How Do Cases Get to the Supreme Court?

The Supreme Court doesn't follow the same procedures as lower courts when it comes to taking cases. Unlike other courts, the Supreme Court can choose which cases to hear. When the Supreme Court grants certiorari, it means at least four of the nine justices agreed to hear a case.

But in general, cases reach the Supreme Court in one of the following three ways:

1. An Appeal From the Federal Court of Appeals

A party who wants to appeal a decision can file a petition for certiorari (cert). The petition informs the Supreme Court that the party would like the Court to review the decision. This is the most common way cases reach the Supreme Court.

The Court can grant a writ of certiorari and accept the case. It may also decline to hear the case, making the appellate court's decision regarding that matter final. The Court receives approximately 7,500 requests for cert and grants oral argument in approximately 80 cases.

2. The Court May Have Original Jurisdiction

In certain instances, the Supreme Court may hear some cases first. Article III, Section II of the Constitution outlines this rare but important jurisdiction. Accordingly, the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction in legal disputes among states and cases affecting ambassadors and other public ministers. The Court exercises original jurisdiction approximately once per term.

3. Appeals From a State Supreme Court

If a state supreme court rules on a case involving an application or interpretation of the U.S. Constitution or federal law, the Supreme Court may choose to hear the case on appeal.

What Is the Role of the Supreme Court?

The Supreme Court can decide cases involving federal law and those arising under the Constitution. It ultimately serves as the interpreter of the Constitution. The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States, which means its decisions are binding not only on the parties but also on other cases with similar facts and legal issues.

Supreme Court's Opinions vs. Other Legislation

Congress can create national laws within the Constitution's limits. These laws are called statutes. Sometimes, Congress gives the federal government's executive branch the power to make rules, regulations, and executive orders.

The Supreme Court has the power to interpret the laws made by the other branches. If the Court finds that the laws contradict the Constitution, it can invalidate them and make them inoperative.

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