Cases heard by the United States Supreme Court are decided by a majority vote. A single justice then writes the opinion of the case, which announces the decision and explains the legal reasoning for arriving at that outcome. Justices who agree with that opinion simply attach their names to it. A justice who agrees with the outcome but disagrees with the legal reasoning can write a concurring opinion. Those who disagree with the outcome can write a dissenting opinion. Only the majority opinion becomes binding legal precedent, although dissenting and concurring opinions are often used by lawyers for making legal arguments.
Majority Opinion Definition
The majority opinion, also known as the opinion of the court, represents the view of the majority of the justices hearing the case. The legal reasoning that forms the opinion explains the law and its application to a specific case and gives guidance on the interpretation and application of laws. For example, if 5 justices vote in one direction and 4 against, the vote of the 5 becomes the majority, and one justice will write an opinion that describes why they came to that conclusion. The discussion in that opinion becomes binding on all courts in the United States as to those issues.
Dissenting Opinion Definition
A dissenting opinion is an opinion written by a justice who voted in the minority and feels strongly enough that he wants to explain why he disagrees with his colleagues. Since the dissenting opinion represents the minority position, the reasoning is not binding precedent. However, the dissenting opinion offers valuable insight into the deliberative process behind a case and articulates reasoning that future court cases could revisit.
Concurring Opinion Definition
A concurring opinion agrees with the outcome of the majority opinion but not necessarily the reasoning found in the majority opinion. The concurring opinion gives a concurring justice an opportunity to further explain the legal reasoning of a case or to offer a completely different legal reasoning for the decision. Although she agrees with the outcome, the concurring justice may feel that the majority arrived there the wrong way, and she might want to make sure that her analysis is known.
Plurality Opinion Definition
A plurality opinion announces the decision of the court but fails to get a majority of the justices to support the legal reasoning. When no single opinion gets majority support, the decision that gets the most votes and supports the majority outcome becomes the plurality opinion. Since the legal reasoning is not adopted by a majority of the justices, it is less reliable as legal precedent.
Opinions in the Circuit Courts and Higher State Courts
Any higher court in which decisions are made by a panel of justices rather than just one can have majority, dissenting, concurring and plurality opinions, including state appellate courts, state supreme courts and the U.S. circuit courts of appeal.
A concurring opinion is written by a justice who agrees with the outcome reached by the majority, but who came to that conclusion in a different way and wants to write about why. A dissenting opinion is written by a justice who disagreed with the majority and wants his disagreement known and explained. Neither are binding decisions.