What Is a Majority Opinion: A Definition and Overview

How These Opinions Determine Cases

The majority opinion is an explanation of the reasoning behind the majority decision of a supreme court. In terms of the United States Supreme Court, the majority opinion is written by a justice selected by either the Chief Justice or if he or she is not in the majority then the senior justice who voted with the majority. The majority opinion is often cited as precedent in arguments and decisions during other court cases.

Two additional opinions that justices of the US Supreme Court might issue include a concurring opinion and a dissenting opinion.

How Cases Reach the Supreme Court

Known as the highest court in the nation, The Supreme Court has nine Justices who decide if they will take a case. They use a rule known as the "Rule of Four", meaning if at least four of the Justices want to take the case, they will issue a legal order called a writ of certiorari to review records of the case. Only about 75 to 85 cases are taken per year, out of 10,000 petitions. Often, the cases that are approved involve the entire country, rather than individual people. This is done so that any case that can have a large impact that can affect a significant amount of people, such as the entire nation, are taken into consideration.

Concurring Opinion

While a majority opinion stands as the judicial opinion agreed upon by more than half of the court, a concurring opinion allows for more legal support.

If all nine justices cannot agree on the resolution of a case and/or reasons that support it, one or more justices can create concurring opinions which agree with the way to solve the case considered by the majority. However, a concurring opinion communicates additional reasons for reaching the same resolution.

 While concurring opinions support the majority decision, it ultimately stresses various constitutional or legal basis for the judgment call.

Dissenting Opinion

In contrast to a concurring opinion, a dissenting opinion directly opposes the opinion of all or part of the majority's decision. Dissenting opinions analyze legal principles and are often utilized in lower courts. Majority opinions may not always be correct, so dissents create a constitutional dialogue about underlying issues that can involve a change in the majority opinion.

The main reason for having these dissenting opinions is because the nine Justices commonly disagree on the method for solving a case in the majority opinion. Through stating their dissent or writing an opinion about why they disagree, the reasoning can eventually change the majority of a court, causing an overrule over the length of the case.

Notable Dissents in History

  • Dred Scott v. Sandford, March 6, 1857
  • Plessy v. Ferguson, May 18, 1896
  • Olmstead v. United States, June 4, 1928
  • Minersville School District v. Gobitis, June 3, 1940
  • Korematsu v. United States, December 18, 1944
  • Abington School District v. Schempp, June 17, 1963
  • FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, July 3, 1978
  • Lawrence v. Texas, June 26, 2003