Opinion of the Court

views updated


An appellate court would give little guidance to inferior courts, the legal community, or the general public concerning the law if it merely rendered a decision and did not explain the ratio decidendi, or the grounds for its decision. It is the court's reading of the law and the application of legal principles to the facts that gives a reported case value as precedent and permits the judicial system to follow the doctrine of stare decisis. By ancient custom, Anglo-American judges, at least at the appellate level, publish opinions along with their decisions.

The general practice of English courts at the time of the American Revolution, and the general practice today in most of the British Commonwealth, is for the members of multijudge courts to deliver their opinions seriatim, that is, severally and in sequence. This practice was followed by the United States supreme court during its early years. However, when john marshall became chief justice in 1801 he instituted the practice of delivering a single "opinion of the court." The effect of this change was to put the weight of the whole Court behind a particular line of reasoning (usually Marshall's), and so to make that line of reasoning more authoritative. At the time, Marshall's innovation was criticized by many, including President thomas jefferson, either because it permitted lazy Justices to evade the responsibility of thinking through the cases on their own or because it fortified the Federalist majority in its conflicts with Republican legislators and state governments.

The opinion of the court is not necessarily unanimous. A majority of the Justices customarily endorses a single opinion, however, and that majority opinion is issued as the opinion of the court, with the Chief Justice—or the senior Justice, if the Chief Justice is not in the majority—assigning responsibility for writing the opinion. A Justice who disagrees with the decision of the case may file a dissenting opinion; a Justice who agrees with the result, but disagrees with the rationale, or desires to supplement the majority opinion, may file a concurring opinion. When there is no majority opinion, the opinion signed by the largest number of Justices in support of the decisions is called the plurality opinion, and no opinion of the court is issued. In some important cases in the past, and increasingly during the burger court years, the number of separate opinions has presented an appearance resembling a return to seriatim opinions.

Dennis J. Mahoney