What is a Majority Opinion?

C. Mitchell

When a lawsuit is considered by a panel of judges, the judges must together consider the facts and issue a single opinion describing the outcome. That opinion is known as the majority opinion because it contains the judgment and views of a majority — at least half — of the presiding judges. All appellate-level courts and supreme courts in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada issue majority opinions. Review courts in the European Union, including the highest European Court of Justice, also issue majority opinions. Majority opinions establish binding law, but judges who do not agree with the majority can submit dissenting opinions that also become a part of the record.

A majority opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court would include at least five of the nine justices.
A majority opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court would include at least five of the nine justices.

A majority opinion states the collective decision of a group of judges. After the case is heard, the judges vote on the outcome, and one judge is selected to write an opinion that expresses the collective viewpoint. Most trial courts and courts of first instance issue only simple opinions: that is, opinions decided by one judge, expressing only that judge’s assessment of the case. A majority opinion usually comes into play when and if an original judgment is appealed.

All appellate-level courts in the US issue majority opinions.
All appellate-level courts in the US issue majority opinions.

Appellate cases in the common law system are generally presented before a panel of three judges, selected from a larger pool. The common law system began in the United Kingdom, and was the foundation for the legal systems of the United States and most English commonwealth countries, including Canada and Australia. The majority opinion from appellate courts in these countries reflects the reasoning of two-thirds of the court, if not the full court. The majority opinion becomes a part of the case law, until further appealed or overturned.

Supreme courts and courts of highest review also issue majority opinions. In the European Union, the European Court of Justice hears cases on rotating panels of three, five, or 15 judges who together must issue a single majority opinion. The UK Supreme Court has 12 judges. In the United States and Canada, the supreme courts have nine judges. The supreme courts of each U.S. state are also made up of nine.

A majority opinion from either the U.S. Supreme Court or any state’s supreme court must represent the findings of at least five of the judges, usually more. A supreme court majority opinion that is split 5/4 is generally considered highly contentious. Judges who do not agree with the majority usually write their own dissenting opinions, which outline their objections. Judges who agree with the court’s ultimate decision but take issue with some aspect of the reasoning will count themselves in the majority, but will often also write concurring opinions.

In all jurisdictions, only the majority opinion is considered binding law. Dissenting and concurring opinions become a part of the permanent record of the case, but do not carry precedential weight. Judges in later cases often consider dissenting and concurring opinions, but cannot rely on anything but a majority opinion in applying the law to the facts.

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