How to Read a Supreme Court Opinion

vol. 13 n. 1

Reading a U.S. Supreme Court opinion can be intimidating. The average opinion includes 4,751 words, and is one of approximately 75 issued each year. It might be reassuring, however, to know that opinions contain similar parts and tend to follow a similar format. There are also useful things to identify amid the pages to help focus reading. Here is a basic guide for reading a U.S. Supreme Court opinion.

1. Identify the parts
Typically, a U.S. Supreme Court opinion is comprised of one or more, or all, of the following parts:

  • Syllabus
    The syllabus appears first, before the main opinion. It is not part of the official opinion, but rather, a summary added by the Court to help the reader better understand the case and the decision. The syllabus outlines the facts of the case and the path that the case has taken to get to the Supreme Court. The last portion of the syllabus sometimes summarizes which justice authored the main opinion, which justices joined in the main opinion, and which justices might have issued concurring or dissenting opinions.
  • Main Opinion
    Following the syllabus is the main opinion. This is the Court’s official decision in the case. In legal terms, the opinion announces a decision and provides an explanation for the decision by articulating the legal rationale that the justices relied upon to reach the decision. The main opinion may take different forms, depending on how the justices decide certain issues. Sometimes decisions are unanimous— all of the justices agree and offer one rationale for their decision, so the Court issues one unanimous opinion. When more than half of the justices agree, the Court issues a majority opinion. Other times, there is no majority, but a plurality, so the Court issues a plurality opinion. Typically, one justice is identified as the author of the main opinion. Per curiam opinions, however, do not identify any authors, and are simply, opinions of the Court.
  • Concurring and Dissenting Opinions
    Often, there are multiple opinions within the document because the justices are not in agreement. Justices who agree with the result of the main opinion, or the resolution of the dispute between the two parties, but base their decision on a different rationale may issue one or more concurring opinion(s). Likewise, justices who disagree with the main opinion in both result and legal rationale may issue one or more dissenting opinion(s).

2. Understand the formal elements
Regardless of which, or how many, parts comprise the opinion, they will share several formal elements. Headings typically include the Court term in which the opinion was announced, case docket number, argument dates, and decision date. Another important element is the case name, which helps determine the parties involved in the case (see sidebar). Finally, there might be an explanation of where the case came from before reaching the Court. Often, there is a note about certiorari, an order by which a higher court reviews the decision of a lower court. For example, an opinion may reference “Certiorari for the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.” That means the Court reviewed the case from the lower court, the U.S. Court of Appeals of the Ninth Circuit.

3. Read purposefully
When reading an opinion, it is important to focus on a few “big picture” takeaways:

  • Facts
    Pinpoint the facts of the case, or the “story”—who, what, when, and where. Supreme Court cases tend to begin with a person, place, thing, or event, often in everyday scenarios. The goal is to be able to tell the story of the case, including its procedural history.
  • Legal Dispute(s)
    What are the legal issues in the case? What questions are being presented? Is the Court interpreting the Constitution or a statute—e.g., an act of Congress? Try to identify the parties’ particular dispute(s) and their main arguments.
  • Disposition
    Generally, the end of the main opinion includes the disposition, or what action the Court is taking. When reviewing decisions from a lower court, the Supreme Court basically has three options:
    • Affirm—allow the lower court’s ruling to stand;
    • Reverse, Void, or Vacate--over-turn the lower court's ruling; or
    • Remand--send the case back to a lower court for retrial.
Sometimes the Court combines the last two of these options—reverse and remand—and not only overturns the lower court’s decision, but also orders a retrial.
  • Law
    The main opinion will include a section on law, which includes the Court’s legal reasoning or holding. In some opinions, this will be clearer than others, but try to identify at least one principle of law that the Court outlines as a basis for its ruling. Sometimes, the opinion cites past cases—legal precedent, policy, or outlines other considerations. Finally, were there any concurring or dissenting opinions? If so, try to determine the differences in reasoning.
  • Significance and Scope
    Consider the significance of the opinion. This may not be readily apparent simply from reading the text of the opinion. What do you think will be its application beyond the particular facts of the case? Consider other possible fact patterns to which it might apply. What else do you think will be the consequence of the opinion, especially considering its holding or legal reasoning? What precedent might it establish?



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