A Short Course on Reading and Understanding Court Opinions

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Reading the opinions handed down by judges can be a bewildering experience if you are unfamiliar with some of the details of the legal system from which this material comes. Set forth here is a brief explanation of some basic concepts that may assist you in sorting through the opinions posted on this page.

What is an "opinion" | Back to TOP

An "opinion" is a written explanation of a decision made by a court. Courts may make many decisions in cases before them. They don't always explain those decisions in written form, because the decisions are most often routine matters on which the law is clear, and no written opinion is needed to clarify or explain the decision. A decision may be rendered orally, "from the bench," or in a letter to the attorneys, or even a terse phone call.

A formal, written "opinion" is usually rendered only when the court feels that the issue or issues being decided are important, and require explanation. Formal, written opinions usually issued with the intention or expectation that they will be published in the official court reports.

Sometimes you will see reference to such terms as a "memorandum opinion." That usually means that the opinion is relatively shorter, and on a narrower issue that a full, formal opinion. The term "per curiam" opinion is explained below.

Usually, only a single judge is considered the author of an opinion. However, because appellate courts hear cases in multi-judge panels (see discussion of appellate courts below) you will often see that more than one judge will issue a written opinion in the same case on the same issue. In those cases, the "majority opinion" is the opinion which decides the case, since a majority of the judges hearing the case voted to adopt that position. The "minority opinion" or "dissenting opinion" is written by a judge or judges who disagree with the result reached by the majority. In the United States Supreme Court, it is not unusual for there to be two, three or four, and sometimes more, opinions, written in a single case. A "concurring opinion" is written by a judge who agrees with the result announced by the majority, but disagrees with the reasons given in the majority opinion.

A "per curiam" opinion is an opinion written "for the court" rather than being authored by a single judge. Usually, per curiam opinions are issued in cases regarded as routine, or on routine issues, and thus no single judge will be considered the author of the opinion. On rare occasions, however, a "per curiam" opinion will be issued in an important case as a demonstration of the court's absolute unanimity on a particular issue.

What is an "order" | Back to TOP

A written opinion is merely an explanation of a decision that a court has made. Most decisions are embodied in a written document called an "order." In fact, the order is more important that the opinion, because the order tells the parties to the case exactly what the court's decision is. And often, the order will direct the parties to do certain things in very specific terms. Failing to follow an order exactly may result in a charge of contempt of court.

At times, it is necessary to read the court's actual order to determine exactly what the court decided, as the explanatory written opinion may be confusing or incomplete. If there is a conflict between the opinion and the order, a party may find it necessary to make an additional application to the court for a clarification. Usually, the order is regarded as being binding rather than the opinion, if there is a conflict between the two.

Trial courts versus appellate courts, and federal courts versus state courts | Back to TOP

When you read an opinion, the first thing you should try to determine is whether the court which issued the opinion is a trial court or an appellate court. Trial courts have single judges, and hear cases and take evidence in the first instance. Trial courts are where juries hear and decide cases. Appellate courts hear cases in which the proceedings in the trial court have been completed (almost always) and decide whether the trial court has made errors in deciding the case.

Trial level courts usually issue very few written opinions. On the other hand, appellate courts issue many written opinions. In some states, the appellate courts may always issue a written opinion in deciding a case. In other states and in the federal system, opinions are written only in some cases.

Whether an opinion has been written by a trial court or an appellate court is important in assessing the value of the opinion as "precedent." See the discussion below of this term.

It's easy to determine if a court is a federal court, as federal courts have "United States" in the title. In the federal system, it is also easy to determine whether you are reading the opinion of a trial court or an appellate court, because the name of the court will always give you the answer. A "United States District Court" is always the trial level court in the federal system. A United States Court of Appeals for the ___ Circuit" is, of course an appellate court in the federal system. Decisions of the federal district courts are appealed first to the U.S. circuit courts. The United States Supreme Court is a federal appellate court, and the highest court in the country. The United States Supreme Court hears appeals from the U.S. circuit courts, and from the highest level of each state court system as well, but only on issues of federal law.

In the state court systems, it is sometimes a little bit more difficult to figure out whether you are reading the opinion of a trial court or an appellate court. One tip-off is whether there is a single judge listed in the opinion as having decided the case. Trial level courts have one judge hearing a particular case. Appellate courts have more than one judge. Depending upon the level of court (and this applies in the federal system as well) you may have as few as two judges deciding a case, or as many as nine (in the United States Supreme Court) or in rare instances, even more than that.

Another tip-off, of course, is the name of the court. The "California Court of **Appeals**" is an appellate court. Also, in most state the highest court in the system is an appellate court called the "Supreme Court." There are a few exceptions to that rule, however, New York State being one of them. In New York, the Supreme Court is a trial level court, and the highest appellate court is the Court of Appeals.

When you read a court opinion, keep in mind that you may be reading about only a small part of the case. This is most often true if you are reading an opinion in a trial court. But it can also be true if you are reading an opinion of an appeals court in a case where there have been many appeals on different issues. The cases posted on this site involving the Church of Scientology are an extreme example of this phenomenon. These cases frequently involve multiple appeals, protracted over a very long period of time, each appeal raising particular, individual issues that pertain only to a part of the case. Adding to the confusion is the fact that the courts may have made many, many decision is such a case, only a few of which are written for publication. It is often very difficult to get an accurate idea of the entire cases when you are reading only a single opinion in complex litigation such as this.

Precedent | Back to TOP

Most people think that law is made only by legislatures, which enact "statutes." But courts make law, too, in the form of their written opinions. Our legal system comes from the English common law system, in which, historically, most law was made by the courts, not by the legislature (i.e. Parliament).

Lawyers talk about court opinions as "precedent." That means that the legal principle established in a written opinion must be followed in similar cases. A case is said to be "precedent" or "have precedential value" if it is one which a particular court should or must follow in deciding a similar case. The idea behind previous court opinions being "precedent" is the concept that the law should be applied similarly in similar cases. So published judicial opinions are like a "catalog" of similar situations towhich judges can refer, to get guidance in deciding cases before them.

Generally speaking, there are two categories of precedent: "mandatory" or "binding" precedent, and "non-binding precedent" also referred to sometime as "persuasive authority." The same judicial opinion may be binding on one court, and the court is then required to follow the opinion, but it may only be "persuasive authority," an opinion which may be followed, for another court. Generally speaking, an opinion of a higher court in the same judicial system is "binding precedent" on a lower court in the same system. Thus, for example, opinions of the New Jersey Supreme Court are binding precedent with respect to the lower courts in the New Jersey state system. Similarly, the opinions of New Jersey's Superior Court, Appellate Division are binding precedent for the lower courts in the New Jersey state system.

The federal system works in the same way. Decisions of the United States Supreme Court are binding precedent on all of the lower courts, and decisions of the circuit courts of appeal are binding precedent on all federal district courts in that circuit.

But always keep in mind, that decisions of the United States Supreme Court are the "trump card" of precedent on issues of federal law. The decisions of the United States Supreme Court on federal law issues are binding precedent on all courts throughout the country, both state and federal.

Questions sometimes arise as to the "precedential value" of the opinions of trial courts. Just how much "precedential value" such opinions have depends upon the rules established in the various court systems and districts. As a general rule, while the opinion of a trial court is often considered not to be binding authority for another trial court in the same jurisdiction, courts at the same level often will follow opinions of fellow trial court judges as a matter of "comity."

Also keep in mind that courts will read and consider the opinions of other courts, even though the opinions may not be "binding precedent." Frequently they will rely on these opinions as "persuasive authority" and follow them, even though they are not required to do so.

So how do you know whether a particular court will regard a particular opinion as "binding authority" that must be followed or as "persuasive authority" that may be followed? While there are some clear rules, often, you can't be certain how much "weight" a court will give the opinions of a court which it is not bound to follow. It is up to attorneys in arguing their cases to present various judicial opinions, or "precedents" to convince a judge or panel of judges to rule in their favor.

Holding and dicta | Back to TOP

The point of a judicial opinion is to explain why the court decided as it did. The court's decision on a particular issue is called the "holding." Often an opinion will contain much discussion of the law, and many statement of legal principles. Any such statements that are extraneous to the "holding" are considered "dicta." To the extent that an opinion contains "dicta," the opinion is not considered "precedent." In strict terms, an opinion is "precedent" only for its "holding" and not for its "dicta."

What is the holding and what is dicta? A complete discussion of that complicated topic is well beyond the scope of a short piece such as this. Law students spend years reading and analyzing judicial opinions for the express purpose of learning how to distinguish a holding from dicta. It is something that lawyers argue about a great deal. An attorney who wishes to use statements in a particular case as precedent will argue that the statement the attorney wishes to rely upon are "holding" and not "dicta." And vice versa.

A classic example of dicta, is a court's speculation on how it, or another court, might decide another case involving different facts, rather than the case before it.

Citation of authority | Back to TOP

Judicial opinions frequently contain references to all kinds of legal materials. Prior court opinions, or precedent, are a just one form of "authority" upon which a court relies in making a decision. Other forms of authority are constitutions and statutes. These forms of authority--constitutions, statutes and prior precedent--are forms of authority that a court must follow. There are other forms of authority that a court may use in considering and deciding the issues in a case. These forms of non-binding authority include articles written in law reviews, and books on legal subjects by experts (called "treatises"). A single opinion may contain many different types of authority.

The actual citation to authority can be confusing, however. Attorneys are others trained or experienced in the law are able to deciper these citations automatically, as simply as reading the television schedule in the newspaper. It's just a matter of learning the terms and abbreviations.

Judicial opinions are cited by the names of the parties, the location in the volumes of court reports in which they appear, and the year of decision: When you see a citation with a "v." in the middle (an abbreviations for "versus" or "against"), it is a citation to a judicial opinion. Following the name of the case is a citation to the book, or "reporter" in which the case can be found. The volume number is given first, followed by the abbreviation for the reporter, followed by the number of the page upon which the opinion begins.

Here are examples of citations to cases in the three main federal courts:

The citation to "U.S." is an abbreviation for the reporter "United States Reports"; the citation to "F.2d" is an abbreviation for the reporter "Federal Reports, Second Series" (there is also a "F.3d" or "Federal Reports, Third Series), and the citation to "F.Supp." is an abbreviation for the reporter "Federal Supplement." Citations to the opinions of these courts are always published in these respective reporters.

State court opinions are a bit more diverse, but essentially you will usually see the abbreviation for the name of the state in the name of the reporter:

Courtesy Temporary Service, Inc. v. Camacho, 222 Cal. App. 3d 1278, 1288 (1990).

This is a very simplistic explanation of case citations. There are many more details, but these basic principles should assist you in figuring out how to find an opinion on the shelf in the law library, or figuring out just what opinion is being cited in a case you are reading.

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