Anatomy of a Supreme Court Opinion

Analyzing Primary Legal Documents

*Adapted from "How to Read a Supreme Court Opinion," by Tiffany Middleton, National Council for the Social Studies, 2013.

Part I. Syllabus

The Syllabus (located at the beginning, if available) is a summary added by the Court to help the researcher better understand the case and the legal decision.

Part II. Main Opinion

The main opinion is the Court's official decision in the case (usually set apart from they syllabus with the heading "Opinion of the Court"). The main opinion also provides an explanation of the legal rationale behind the Court's decision.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions

If the justices are not in agreement with the result of the main opinion, there will be multiple opinions included in the opinion document. These will usually be set apart with identifying headings.

When reading a Supreme Court opinion, you should be able to identify the following:

I. Facts: the story or narrative of the case (who, what, when, and where), including the procedural history of the case.

II. Legal Disputes: the legal issues, questions, and main arguments being presented in the case.

III. Disposition: the action the court is taking (usually located at the end of the main opinion)

IV. Law: the Court's legal reasoning or holding (section included in the main opinion). Try to identify at least one principle of law that the Court outlines as a basis for its ruling.

Critical Thinking Component: What is the significance and scope of the opinion?

  • How does the court's decision resolve the original story presented in the case?
  • What do you think will be its application beyond the particular facts of the case?
  • What precedents might it establish?