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How to Read a Supreme Court Opinion

The Supreme Court plays a fundamental role in protecting the values enshrined in the Constitution. But usually, 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 will consist of the following parts:

Syllabus

This is the part of the opinion that describes the facts of the case. It also explains the procedure of how the case got to the Court.

Main Opinion/Binding Decision

This part gives an official decision and 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: This is when more than half the justices agree on the decision
  • Plurality Opinion: This is when there is no majority but a plurality

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

Disposition

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

  • Affirm the lower's court decision
  • Overturn the lower court's ruling
  • Send the case back to the lower court (remand the case)

Concurring Opinion

One or more of the justices may write additional concurring opinions. A justice may issue 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 both the decision and the reasoning may write dissenting opinions.

Concurring and dissenting opinions do not affect the outcome of the case. They are, however, important. This is because Supreme Court opinions are analyzed in future cases, and concurring and dissenting opinions may provide an alternate interpretation of the laws.

How Do Cases End up in the Supreme Court?

The Supreme Court doesn't follow the same procedure 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, that means at least four justices have 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

This is the most common way cases reach the Supreme Court. A party who wants to appeal a decision can request for certiorari (cert). This is simply a way of informing the Supreme Court that a party would like to have the Supreme Court review the decision.

The Court can grant cert and accept the case. It may also decline to hear the case, making the appellate court decision a final one regarding that matter.

2. The Court May Have Original Jurisdiction

In certain instances, some cases may be heard by the Supreme Court first. This rare but important jurisdiction is outlined under Article III, Section II of the Constitution. Accordingly, in disputes among states and cases affecting ambassadors and other public ministers, the Supreme Court will have original jurisdiction.

3. Appeals From a State Supreme Court

If a state supreme court rules on a case that involves an application or interpretation of the U.S Constitution, the U.S Supreme Court has the power to hear those cases on appeal.

What Is the Role of the Supreme Court?

The Supreme Court has the power to decide on cases arising under the Constitution and ultimately serves as the interpreter of the Constitution. This 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, within the limits of the Constitution, can create national law. These laws are called statutes. But Congress is not the only organ that has the power to create laws. Other branches of the government may also create laws through regulations and executive orders.

The Supreme Court, as a guardian of the Constitution, 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 the laws and make them inoperative.

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