|This article does not cite any references or sources. (December 2009)|
In law, 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.
Normally, appellate courts (or panels) are staffed with an odd number of judges to avoid a tie. Sometimes and in some jurisdictions, 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.
Majority opinions by region
There is a key stylistic difference between the U.S. on the one hand, and the UK and other common law countries on the other. In the U.S., the disposition of an appeal in a majority opinion is usually drafted in the present tense, so that the disposition is itself a performative utterance. That is, a U.S. court will say that "we affirm (or reverse)" the lower court's decision, or, "the decision of the [lower court] is hereby affirmed (or reversed)." By saying so, the court actually does so.
In the UK and many other common law countries, the disposition in a majority opinion is phrased in the future tense. For example, the Justices of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom end a majority opinion by stating that "I would dismiss the appeal" or "I would allow the appeal," while the Justices of the High Court of Australia end a majority opinion by stating that "the appeal should be dismissed" or "the appeal should be allowed." The main reason for this difference is that U.S. judges act directly and immediately in the name of the sovereign (the people), while in the UK and other common law countries, the judges are merely sitting in place of the true sovereign (the Queen), so their opinions must be phrased as a recommendation to the sovereign.
American dissenting and concurring opinions are sometimes partially drafted in the future tense, since they are speaking in terms of hypothetical situations that will not actually occur, as opposed to what the majority is actually doing in its opinion. However, even dissenting opinions may end in a present tense performative utterance, which is usually some variation on the phrase "I respectfully dissent."
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.