Understanding Court Opinions
Obtaining more information
Court rulings generally are contained in written opinions issued at the time a court decision is announced. Such a written opinion is frequently titled “Order” when issued by a trial court.
A. Opinions express a court's reasoning and legal or other grounds for the decision.
B. An opinion deals only with the case before the court, but may have impact on other cases and issues.
C. Opinions establish precedent to be followed in later cases involving the same or similar issues.
D. Many orders are relatively brief decisions by the court disposing of mundane matters, such as granting an extension of time.
A. Full-length written opinions are rare in trial courts. Some judges, in more important cases, issue a "memorandum opinion," a statement of the ruling and the statutes, cases, etc., governing the decision.
B. In some cases, where required by law or requested by the parties, the judge will issue written "findings of fact and conclusions of law."
1. The findings set out the evidentiary facts forming the basis for the court's decision.
2. The conclusions set out the law on which the court's decision is based.
3. Some judges may ask the parties to prepare proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law, although the court remains the ultimate decision-maker.
C. Pleadings, stipulations and briefs (if any) filed by the parties and their attorneys may be used to understand the legal and factual issues involved in a case.
1. Pleadings are the filed statements of a party as to its position on the facts of a case, the law applicable to those facts, and the legal relief being sought.
2. Stipulations are statements regarding issues of fact, and sometimes law, to which the parties have agreed are not in dispute in a particular case.
3. Briefs or memorandums usually examine the law relied on by a party to support its position under the facts of the particular case. They are filed according to court rules, and/or at the request of the Court.
4. All of these filings advocate a party's position and do not present an objective, balanced discussion of all issues or of the opposing party's position.
Appellate Court Opinions Reprinted.
A. Both the Missouri Court of Appeals and Supreme Court issue written opinions when ruling on cases, which are then officially printed in the Southwestern Reporter.
B. Many of these opinions can be accessed online at the respective court’s homepages, through a subscription-based reporting service such as Loislaw, Westlaw, or LexisNexis, and by free services such as FindLaw.
C. Prior to writing its opinions, the Court receives briefs from the parties and usually hears oral arguments by the attorneys.
D. Briefs must contain a fair and concise statement of the facts, as established by the evidence.
E. Legal issues which were presented to the trial court are argued with supporting law in a separate section of the brief. (Issues not raised in the lower court cannot be raised for the first time on appeal except under the "plain error.")
F. Briefs are filed well in advance of oral arguments and are available to the media.
G. Parties discontent with the outcome at the trial court have a right to an appeal to the Missouri Court of Appeals, though many such appeals are dismissed with summary opinions.
H. The Missouri Supreme Court is not obligated to hear most appeals. One major exception is criminal cases in which the punishment imposed is death.
Reading and Analyzing Opinions.
A. Judges draft opinions with the aid of law clerks, after give-and-take with other judges hearing the case.
B. The opinion will be decided by majority, and will be drafted by one of the judges who joins the majority. This opinion is sometimes referred to as the “majority opinion.”
C. The opening portion states the basic facts that are considered relevant to the court's decision. It may include a summary of the legal issues involved.
D. The middle portion usually sets out the court's reasoning in reaching its decision, and the law supporting it. It may analyze the parties' positions and legal arguments in-depth.
E. The closing portion contains the decision and states what further action (if any) is to be taken in the case. The most common orders are:
1. Affirmed - the lower court's rulings upheld.
2. Reversed and remanded – error is found in the lower court proceeding and the case is sent back to that court for further appropriate action.
3. A combination of the foregoing, with portions of the lower court's rulings found correct and portions incorrect, requiring some further action by the lower court.
4. Reversed outright – the lower court's ruling is found incorrect, and the appellate court determines there is nothing further to be tried or decided by the lower court, and the judgment is overturned.
F. Following the opinion may come a dissenting opinion, written by a judge who disagrees with the holding of the majority, or a concurring opinion, written by a judge who agrees with the outcome of the majority’s decision, but not its underlying reasoning.
G. Dissenting and concurring opinions are not binding but can influence how the case is subsequently interpreted.
Obtaining More Information
A. The parties' briefs usually will emphasize important social, political or legal issues of public interest.
B. The lawyers involved usually will talk to reporters after a newsworthy case is decided.
C. Other lawyers with expertise in the particular area, court personnel, interest groups, government officials and the parties may provide background and comments.
D. Any amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) briefing will provide additional sources of interested parties, argument, and commentary.
E. Judges normally will not try to explain or interpret their opinions for the media; they expect the court's opinion to speak for them.
F. Summaries of Missouri appellate court opinions are published monthly by the Supreme Court Clerk's office and can be obtained on request from that office. The summaries, which are unofficial, state briefly the major points of the courts' opinions. These can also be found on the Internet. See the Supreme Court of Missouri website for links to state appellate courts.
G. Opinions are "handed down" by appellate courts on a regular schedule, usually monthly. In unusual circumstances, a decision may be "handed down" specially.
H. Opinions are not final when handed down. A party may apply for rehearing or for transfer to a higher appellate court. Infrequently an appellate court will transfer a case directly to the Missouri Supreme Court.