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The Four Types of Opinions at the Supreme Court (Unanimous, Majority, Minority, Concurring, and Dissenting)

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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.

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The term "opinions," as used here, refers to several types of writing by the Justices. The most well known are the opinions of the Court announced in cases in which the Court has heard oral argument. Each sets out the Court’s judgment and its reasoning. The Justice who authors the majority or principal opinion summarizes the opinion from the bench during a regularly scheduled session of the Court. Shortly thereafter, a copy of the opinion is posted on this website. The Court may also dispose of cases in per curiam opinions, which do not identify the author. These opinions frequently resolve cases summarily, often without oral argument, but they have been issued in important argued cases, such as Bush v. Gore, 531 U

S. 98, and the campaign finance case of Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U. S. 1. In-chambers opinions are written by an individual Justice to dispose of an application by a party for interim relief, e.g., for a stay of the judgment of the court below, for vacation of a stay, or for a temporary injunction. Justices may also write opinions relating to the orders of the Court, e.g., to dissent from a denial of certiorari or to concur in that denial. All opinions are later compiled and printed in the United States Reports, the Court’s official publication. Electronic versions of the bound volumes are posted on this website.

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The constitution empowers self governance to the states through the state law systems. The federal court system takes precedence where issues touching on the entire nation are in question. Any state statute that conflicts federal statute can be nullified by the federal court system on ground of being termed unconstitutional. The federal court system has a criminal jurisdiction through the Federal Interstate Commerce Clause and thus taking over “governance of interstate business issues such as telephone, television, trucking, U.S. mail, and air travel” (Criminal 2011, Para. 1). The following are also under the jurisdiction of the federal court systems “national security, the military, the Post Office, Federal Taxes, and Federal benefit entitlement programs” (Criminal 2011, Para. 1). Some crimes considered under state jurisdiction may turn over to be federal if they pass over the state line for instance if a person has sex with a minor who is from a different state then such a crime falls under the jurisdiction of the federal court system

Another example is graffiti which is considered under the jurisdiction of the state court system but when graffiti is on the walls of structures which are under the jurisdiction of the federal court system for instance the post office then it becomes a federal crime (Criminal, 2011).

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Finally, a majority of Justices must agree to all of the contents of the Court's opinion before it is publicly delivered. Justices do this by "signing onto" the opinion. The Justice in charge of writing the opinion must be careful to take into consideration the comments and concerns of the others who voted in the majority. If this does not happen, there may not be enough Justices to maintain the majority. On rare occasions in close cases, a dissenting opinion later becomes the majority opinion because one or more Justices switch their votes after reading the drafts of the majority and dissenting opinions. No opinion is considered the official opinion of the Court until it is delivered in open Court (or at least made available to the public).

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Beatty, J & Samuelson, S. (2006). Business Law and the Legal Environment. New York, NY: Cengage Learning.

Criminal. (2011). The Difference Between Federal and State Crimes. Criminal Law. Web.

Criminal Laws. (2009). The Creation of Criminal Laws in the United States. Money Instructor. Web.

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