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What Is a Legal Opinion?

A written document accompanying a judge's decision is a legal opinion.
The United States Supreme Court issues a legal opinion when it decides a case.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 11 October 2014
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A legal opinion is a document written by a judge which accompanies a legal decision. The opinion explains how the judge arrived at a ruling, and may offer additional thoughts and commentary. In the event that the opinion is published, it becomes part of case law in nations with a common law system, which means that it can be utilized in future legal cases. For this reason, judges craft legal opinions very carefully.

Usually, a legal opinion is published if a case is of special interest, or if there is something unusual about the ruling. For example, if a judge sets a precedent, challenges an existing law, or provides a novel interpretation of the law, the legal opinion would be published. Likewise, legal opinions from high courts, in which judges are called upon to interpret very complex legal challenges, are usually published.

If multiple judges provided a ruling, one judge will usually write the majority opinion, explaining the position of the majority in the case. Another judge may write a dissenting opinion, explaining why he or she disagreed with the majority. Both opinions can enter case law, and can provide valuable information about interpretation of the law, and how to pursue similar cases in the future. In addition, a judge can write a concurring opinion, adding thoughts and commentary to the majority opinion.

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The law is continuously evolving, and legal opinions are an important way of shaping the law. In some cases, issues are actually brought to court with the goal of challenging the law, rather than winning a particular outcome. Cases brought before the high court are usually carefully chosen and formulated for this very reason, with justices being well aware that their opinions in such cases can have long-lasting repercussions.

Legal opinions can be quite elegant and sometimes eloquent as well. They are not necessarily stiff and dry, although they sometimes are, and some judges even throw in humor or asides. Some court reporters make a beat out of ferreting through legal opinions for humorous asides. Some judges have taken this to a high level: in Pennsylvania v. Dunlap, a case heard before the United States Supreme Court, Justice Roberts opened his dissenting opinion with an outlining of the case that read like something from a detective novel.

People sometimes use the term "legal opinion" to refer to advice or opinion offered by a legal adviser, rather than to a legal opinion issued by a judge.

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Discuss this Article

anon276141
Post 7

Where is it possible to learn how to write a legal opinion?

gypsy359
Post 6

Can a member of a housing authority board of commissioners resign from the board to become executive director of that housing authority?

sneakers41
Post 4

@Comfyshoes - I know what you are saying but unless there is a gag order in the case and that would only relate to the facts of the case, people are free to give their speculative opinion on things.

I do think that offering legal advice and opinion like that on television is not a bad thing because lay people can learn about the law and various strategies that lawyers use to defend their clients.

You can really learn a lot from legal advice and that fact that it is free advice it is even better.

comfyshoes
Post 3

I wanted to say that I love watching these legal analysts giving their free legal opinion about a current case that is being tried. I wonder how much of this free legal advice affects the outcome of ongoing criminal cases.

I say this because not all juries are sequestered so you will have jurors that will be influenced by what they see and hear on television. I realize that the public is intrigued by many of these cases but I wonder at what point does it becomes a problem.

For example, the legal analyst might suggest that the prosecutor made a mistake with a certain witness and something that may not have been noticed by the jury now gets blown up because it is on television.

subway11
Post 2

@Icecream17 - I wanted to add that when my sister was in law school they also briefed cases. She said that it is supposed to help you understand why certain rulings take place.

All legal opinions are based on the judges interpretation and he or she will use previous rulings in support of his or her current rulings. Everyone is really looking to see what legal rulings and subsequent opinions are going to come out regarding the current challenge to Obama’s healthcare legislation.

There are many legal scholars that think that the commerce clause is the sticking point, but we will have to see. I think that FDR had similar challenges with respect to other social programs that he was looking to implement and the court sided with him so only time will tell.

The deciding factor is going to be the Supreme Court because their rulings become final case law.

icecream17
Post 1

I remember when I was in college and took a constitutional law class; our professor had us brief cases. We basically were presented with the facts of a case and had to act like a judge and decide the case based on previous established case law.

It was a fascinating and intense assignment because we really had to research and come up with a logical solution. A lot of our mock cases had to do with zoning laws and things that were not particularly interesting.

This class was really one of my favorite classes in college because I really learned a lot about case law and how legal opinions are formed.

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