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Court Opinion

Who's Suing Whom? Terms And Abbreviations In Case Titles

A statement that is prepared by a judge or court announcing the decision after a case is tried; includes a summary of the facts, a recitation of the applicable law and how it relates to the facts, the rationale supporting the decision, and a judgment; and is usually presented in writing, though occasionally an oral opinion is rendered.

Court opinions are the pronouncements of judges on the legal controversies that come before them. In a common-law system, court opinions constitute the law by which all controversies are settled. Attorneys analyze prior opinions on similar legal issues, attempting to draw parallels between their case and favorable court opinions and to distinguish unfavorable opinions. Judges study relevant opinions in rendering their decisions.

The majority of court opinions are not released for publication. Those that are released by the courts are collected in law books called reporters. Each state has at least one reporter that contains the opinions of its courts, and the nation has several reporters that contain the opinions of the federal courts.

All published opinions are similar in format. At the top of each reporter page appears the name of the reporter preceded by the volume number. In the upper outside corner of the page is the page number. The volume, reporter name, and page number constitute the citation, which is used to locate the opinion or to refer to it. This citation may be abbreviated; for example, the citation "100 Cal. Rptr. 600" is a shorthand reference to the opinion that appears in volume 100 of the California Reporter at page 600. Many opinions are published in more than one reporter. In that situation, the additional citations are called parallel citations.

The first segment of the court opinion itself is the title of the action. It identifies the parties to the case and their roles in the action, such as plaintiff or defendant. If the opinion is from an appellate court, the party who appealed the lower court's decision is identified as appellant, and the party who is defending the lower court's decision is identified as respondent. In a criminal case, the plaintiff is usually the state prosecuting the crime—or the United States, if the federal government is prosecuting. After the title, a docket or calendar number assigned by the court appears, followed by the name of the court delivering the opinion and the date of the decision.

After this identifying information, most reporters insert a summary of the facts and the decision. In addition, some reporters classify the points of law applied by the court into individual paragraphs, called headnotes, that help the reader extract and analyze each legal concept discussed. The summary and headnotes are written by the publisher of the reporter for the convenience of the reader and are not part of the court's opinion.

The court's discussion of the case is often preceded by a syllabus, written by the court reporter, which briefly summarizes the case. After the syllabus, the court identifies the attorneys representing the parties.

Finally, the text of the opinion is presented. It usually opens with the name of the judge who wrote it. If the words per curiam or by the court appear at this point, they mean that the court chose not to identify any individual judge as the author. If the opinion is designated a memorandum opinion, it is usually a concise opinion of the entire court.

At the beginning of the opinion, the court briefly recounts the facts and issues involved in the case. Then, it delineates the applicable RULES OF LAW and explains how they relate to the facts of the case. In determining what the applicable law is, the court first looks for any relevant statutes. If no statute governs the action, the court relies on past decisions in similar cases, or precedent. If it is a case of first impression—that is, no existing statute or precedent governs the case—the court bases its opinion on similar decisions and on its own reasoning.

A court opinion may be as brief as a few sentences or as long as several hundred pages. In its course, the judge or the court may make observations or express convictions that do not contribute to the final holding in the case. These statements are called dicta and have no binding or precedential force. After the discussion of the facts and the applicable law, the opinion announces the holding, which is the legal principle or principles derived from the opinion. Only the holding is binding precedent in subsequent cases.

Each reported decision may comprise one opinion written by one judge on behalf of the entire court, or several opinions written by individuals or groups of judges. Not all the opinions in a case have the same legal force. The most significant is a majority opinion, in which a majority of the members of the court agree both with the reasoning and with the holding. A majority opinion has the most conclusive precedential value of any opinion. An opinion agreed upon by the largest number of judges but fewer than a majority of those on the court is a plurality opinion. A plurality may occur where, for example, four of nine justices join one opinion, two others write concurrences, and three write dissents. A plurality opinion constitutes the holding of the court, since it is joined by the largest number of justices, but it carries less precedential value than a majority opinion because it is not agreed upon by a majority of the court. If a judge or judges agree with the outcome of the case but not with the majority's reasoning, they may write a separate concurring opinion. Conversely, a dissenting opinion may be written by a judge or judges who disagree with the decision of the court. Neither a concurrence nor a dissent has precedential value.

The last segment of a majority or plurality opinion sets forth the judgment of the court. The judgment is the official decision of the court on the rights and claims of the parties and resolves the controversy between them. It may be a final determination, or it may remand the case (send it back) to a lower court for further action. A judgment may be completely in favor of one party, or partly in favor of one and partly in favor of another. It may be a straightforward affirmance or reversal of a lower court's decision, or it may affirm on some questions, reverse on others, and remand on still others.


Ochs, Linnea L. 1983. Legal Word Finder. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Statsky, William P. 2003. Introduction to Paralegalism: Perspectives, Problems, and Skills. 6th ed. Clifton Park, N.J.: Thomson/Delmar Learning.

Wren, Christopher G., and Jill R. Wren. 1999. The Legal Research Manual: A Game Plan for Legal Research and Analysis. Madison, Wis.: Legal Education.

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