A judicial opinion is a form of legal opinion written by a judge or a judicial panel in the course of resolving a legal dispute, providing the decision reached to resolve the dispute, and usually indicating the facts which led to the dispute and an analysis of the law used to arrive at the decision.
Kinds of judicial opinions
A majority opinion is a judicial opinion agreed to by more than half of the members of a court. A majority opinion sets forth the decision of the court and an explanation of the rationale behind the court's decision.
Not all cases have a majority opinion. At times, the justices voting for a majority decision (e.g., to affirm or reverse the lower court's decision) may have drastically different reasons for their votes, and cannot agree on the same set of reasons. In that situation, several concurring opinions may be written, none of which is actually the view of a majority of the members of the court. Therefore, the concurring opinion joined by the greatest number of judges is referred to as the plurality opinion.
A dissenting opinion (or dissent) is an opinion written by one or more judges expressing disagreement with the majority opinion. A dissenting opinion does not create binding precedent nor does it become a part of case law. However, they are cited from time to time as a persuasive authority when arguing that the court's holding should be limited or overturned. In some cases, a previous dissent is used to spur a change in the law, and a later case will write a majority opinion for the same rule of law formerly cited by the dissent.
The dissent may disagree with the majority for any number of reasons: a different interpretation of the case law, use of different principles, or a different interpretation of the facts. They are written at the same time as the majority opinion, and are often used to dispute the reasoning behind the majority opinion.
Normally, appellate courts (or panels) are staffed with an odd number of judges to avoid a tie. Sometimes when judicial positions are vacant or a judge has recused himself or herself from the case, the court may be stuck with a tie, in which case the lower court's decision will be affirmed without comment by an equally divided court.
A majority opinion in countries which use the common law system becomes part of the body of case law. Such decisions can usually be cited as precedent by later courts. In some courts, such as the Supreme Court of the United States, the majority opinion may be broken down into numbered or lettered sections. This allows judges who write an opinion "concurring in part" or "dissenting in part" to easily identify which parts they join with the majority, and which sections they do not.
In United States legal practice, a memorandum opinion (or memorandum decision) is an opinion that does not create precedent of any kind in some jurisdictions. A memorandum is often brief and written only to announce judgment in a particular case. Depending upon local court rules, citation of the opinion as case law may not be accepted. A memorandum opinion may be issued where the law is so clearly defined that no purpose would be served by issuing an explanation as to why the law requires a certain disposition of the case before the court. In appellate courts, a memorandum opinion may indicate that the judges hearing the appeal find no error in the opinion being appealed to be worthy of comment.
a per curiam decision is one rendered by the court (or at least, a majority of the court) acting collectively and anonymously. In contrast to regular opinions, a per curiam does not list the individual judge responsible for authoring the decision, but minority dissenting and concurring decisions are signed.
Factors influencing judicial opinions
Peer-reviewed research suggests that judicial rulings can be swayed by extraneous variables that should have no bearing on legal decisions.
- Bryan A. Garner, ed. (2001). Black's Law Dictionary (2nd Pocket Edition ed.). St. Paul, MN: West Group. pp. 503, 523.
- For examples, see Bobby v. Van Hook and Michigan v. Fisher
- Danziger, S.; Levav, J.; Avnaim-Pesso, L. (2011). "Extraneous factors in judicial decisions". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108 (17): 6889–6892. doi:10.1073/pnas.1018033108. ISSN 0027-8424.
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