Plurality opinion

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A plurality opinion is the opinion from a group of judges, often in an appellate court, in which no single opinion received the support of a majority of the court. The plurality opinion did not receive the support of more than half the justices, but received more support than any other opinion.

In Marks v. United States, 430 U.S. 188 (1977), the Supreme Court of the United States explained how the holding of a case should be viewed where there is no majority supporting the rationale of any opinion: “When a fragmented Court decides a case and no single rationale explaining the result enjoys the assent of five Justices, the holding of the Court may be viewed as that position taken by those Members who concurred in the judgments on the narrowest grounds.” Marks, 430 U.S. at 193.

The Marks Rule has raised the following schools of thought regarding the appropriate basis for determining the holding in such fractured cases: (a) the narrowest analysis essential to the result derived from a combination of all concurring opinions, (Pedcor Mgmt. Co. Welfare Benefit Plan v. Nations Pers. of Tex., Inc., 343 F.3d 355, 358-59 (5th Cir. 2003)); (b) the concurring opinion offering the narrowest rationale, (e.g. Horn v. Thoratec Corp., 376 F.3d 163, 175-76 (9th Cir. 2004)); or (c) only those parts of the concurring opinions which overlap and arrive at the same result. For example, if one follows the first interpretation, then the holding in the case should be viewed as the narrowest rationale supported by all of the concurring opinions read together as though it were a single majority opinion, and where there is a conflict, the opinion based on the narrowest ground governs. Followers of the second rationale would find the concurring opinion offering the narrowest analysis to be the holding. Whereas, under the third interpretation, only the rationale(s) common to all concurring opinions which arrive at the same result(s) (and to the exclusion of all other rationales) is considered the holding.

A good example of a plurality opinion can be found in the Supreme Court's decision in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, 553 U.S. 181 (2008). In considering whether Indiana's voter identification law passed constitutional muster, three justices believed the proper analysis was to apply the balancing approach laid down in Anderson v. Celebrezze, 460 U.S. 780 (1983). Three other justices agreed with the outcome of the Anderson approach, but believed the proper analysis was to apply the rule in Burdick v. Takushi, 504 U.S. 428 (1992), which "forged Anderson's amorphous 'flexible standard' into something resembling an administrable rule." Regardless of the approach used, a reading of the opinions together results in a holding that "neutral, nondiscriminatory regulation of voting procedure" is constitutional so long as the burden imposed by the regulation is minimal or not severe.

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