What is a Controlling Opinion?

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  • Written By: R. Kimball
  • Edited By: Daniel Lindley
  • Last Modified Date: 13 March 2020
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A controlling opinion is the description of the reasoning used by the court in making its judgment. Generally speaking, it is the opinion of the majority of the judges of a court in a given decision. There are circumstances where there is no clear majority for the opinion of the court, so the first opinion listed in a decision is considered the controlling opinion of the case.

Usually, one judge writes the court’s opinion. When this judge is a member of a panel, the different judges decide upon the opinion to which they will place their names. The judges joining into the opinion determine if they agree with the reasoning included within the opinion or if they agree with the opinion in result only. Each judge will sign onto an opinion only when he or she agrees with the entire opinion. The opinion that receives the majority of the members of the panel as signatories to it will be the controlling opinion for that case.


When a judge or judges agree only with the result of a specific opinion, these judges may choose to join together to write a separate concurring opinion. The concurring opinion does not carry the same weight as the majority opinion, but it may be cited in order to persuade a court on a specific point. The judges may choose not to write an opinion. In such a circumstance, these concurring judges might designate that they concur in the opinion only by writing such next to the majority opinion and signing their names.

A controlling opinion differs from a dissenting opinion in that the dissenting opinion is the opinion of a minority of the justices sitting on the panel. The controlling opinion speaks the reasoning for the majority of justices sitting on the panel. The dissenting minority disagrees with the majority opinion. This minority does not agree with the result of the controlling opinion, whereas the concurring opinion agrees with the controlling opinion.

Several other forms of opinions are used by different courts to express the reasoning used in making the court’s decision. When no clear majority exists for a group of opinions in a case, the opinions are called plurality opinions. These opinions may not serve a party well when used as a precedent in a future case, as the court did not have clear reasoning for why it made a decision. A controlling opinion carries more value with a court when used to explain a position in a case.


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