Reading a Supreme Court Decision

Most Supreme Court decisions consist of a “syllabus,” followed by one or more opinions. This is a breakdown of the structure of a decision, explaining the function and significance of each part.


The syllabus is not part of the official opinion of the Court. The Reporter of Decisions, who is a statutory officer under the direction of the Court, prepares the syllabus for the convenience of the reader. It provides a summary of the background of the case, including what happened in the lower courts. Then, it outlines the conclusions that the Court reached and some of its reasoning. Sometimes the end of the syllabus lists the opinions in the case, noting their authors and the Justices who joined them. The syllabus in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, which upheld the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, is an example of how a syllabus can make a factually and legally complex case easier to understand.

Majority Opinions

The first opinion is the official opinion of the Court in the case. This is generally known as the “majority opinion,” which states the outcome of the case and explains how the Court reached that outcome. Sometimes the majority opinion is a unanimous opinion, which means that all of the Justices agreed on the outcome and the reasoning. Ideological dissonance within the Court can make unanimity elusive in major cases. However, a famous example of a unanimous opinion is Brown v. Board of Education, which struck down racial segregation in schools.

Plurality Opinions

Sometimes less than a majority of the Court (four or fewer Justices in modern times) agrees on the reasoning for a decision. This makes the main opinion a “plurality” opinion. A reader should count the Justices who signed onto the main opinion to find out whether it is a majority or plurality opinion. This may affect the impact of the case. The Court suggested in Marks v. U.S. that “when no single rationale explaining the result enjoys the assent of five Justices, the holding of the Court may be viewed as that position taken by those members who concurred in the judgments on the narrowest grounds.” The Marks rule is difficult to apply and has been interpreted in varying ways.

Concurring Opinions

If a Justice agrees with the outcome of a case but not the reasoning, they may write a concurring opinion. This explains the alternative grounds on which they reached the same conclusion as the majority or plurality. Although concurrences sometimes may seem superfluous, some concurrences have been more influential than the main opinion in the case. An example is Justice Robert H. Jackson’s concurrence in Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. v. Sawyer, which created a tripartite framework for analyzing the exercise of Presidential power.

Dissenting Opinions

If a Justice disagrees with the outcome of the case, they may write a dissenting opinion. This usually explains why the reasoning of the majority is flawed and why the Court should have reached the opposite result. A dissent may seem like an empty gesture of protest, but some dissents have laid the foundation for future Courts to overturn decisions. Justice John Marshall Harlan, who served from 1877 to 1911, became known as the Great Dissenter for authoring more than 120 of these opinions. Harlan is perhaps most famous for his fiery dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson, in which he denounced the “separate but equal” principle behind racial segregation.

Per Curiam Opinions

While most opinions identify an author, or occasionally more than one author, some opinions are known as “per curiam” opinions. These do not have individual authors but are written “by the Court” anonymously. One of the most memorable examples of a per curiam opinion is Bush v. Gore, the case that resolved the 2000 presidential election.

Seriatim Opinions

Very early in its history, the Supreme Court wrote “seriatim” (“consecutive”) opinions. This is an archaic style in which each Justice wrote their own opinion on a case, regardless of whether they agreed with any or all of the other Justices. This style tends to obscure the legal principles that arise from a case, and the Court abandoned “seriatim” opinions in the early 19th century. An example of this style is Chisholm v. Georgia, the first major decision of the Supreme Court.

Footnotes in Opinions

Many Supreme Court opinions come with footnotes, in which the author cites sources that support their views or further explains their reasoning. Footnotes rarely have a significant impact, but there are a few exceptions. Probably the most famous footnote in Supreme Court history is footnote 4 in U.S. v. Carolene Products Co., which set the stage for heightened judicial scrutiny in situations involving “prejudice against discrete and insular minorities.”