Reporting of opinions

Recording and dissemination of a Supreme Court ruling.

The opinion of the Supreme Court is one of the most complete records of the work of any of the policy-making units of U.S. government. The opinion not only describes the fate of the litigants in the case at hand and the reasons for the Court’s decision but also sets guidelines for the resolution of any future disputes arising in the lower courts of the United States that are similar to the case under consideration. The reporting of these decisions, then, is an essential part of the Court’s policy-making process and an integral means by which to gain and maintain effect.

The Process

Once the Court reaches its decision in a given case and opinion drafts have been circulated, signed, and finalized, the decision is announced in open court. The author of the majority opinion typically reads a portion of it, and the other justices occasionally offer comment. The dissenters may also read portions of their opinions, although Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist reportedly limited the availability of this outlet. Cases take some time to be reported from their date of public announcement, but usually no more than a year.

After the public announcement of the Court’s decision, the opinion goes through a final edit in the office of the reporter of decisions. The reporterReporters, Supreme Court of decisions checks all citations, corrects any typographical errors, and adds headnotes and the names of the counsel to the case. He or she then supervises the publication of the decision in the official reporter of the Supreme Court, the United States Reports. The United States Reports once bore the name of the reporter of decisions in its citation (for example, 123 Wheaton 456), but later adopted the format 123 U.S. 456, where 123 is the volume and 456 the page number. The new citation format began with the ninety-first volume of the United States Reports, published in 1874.

The clerk’s office provides the press with advance copies of the opinions, and the opinions appear in full form a day or so later in United States Law WeekUnited States Law Week[United States Law Week], published by the Bureau of National Affairs, and the Supreme Court Bulletin, published by Commerce Clearing House. The United States Reports, printed under the auspices of the Government Printing Office, publishes both preliminary prints and bound reports of a term’s decisions. These appear some time after the announcement of the decisions and include all written opinions of the Court, including dissents and concurrences, unsigned per curiams, and orders.

Private Sources

Private organizations also report the decisions of the Court, most of the time with less turnaround time than the Government Printing Office. The West Publishing Company began publishing the Supreme Court Reporter in 1883, and the Lawyers Cooperative Company began its United States Supreme Court Reports, Lawyers’ Edition in 1901. The Lawyers’ Edition contains decisions from the Court’s beginning, and the Supreme Court Reporter begins with the October, 1882, term. These private publishers print the opinions issued by the justices verbatim, adding classifications and notes that aid users in placing the opinions in a larger context. West has a key number system in which cases are classified by subject, allowing for ease in legal research. Supreme Court decisions also appear on several on-line computer services such as WESTLAW and LEXIS-NEXIS (which require purchase to use), where they are published virtually simultaneously with their announcement, as well as on several privately run Web sites including The Legal Information Institute at Cornell University (http://supct, FindLaw Internet Legal Resources (http://www.caselaw.findlaw .com), and Rominger Legal (http://www.romin, all of whichare free to the user. All have search engines allowing for easy retrieval of Court case law relevant to any legal inquiry. Many of these report decisions of the lower courts as well.

Further Reading

  • Baum, Lawrence. The Supreme Court. 8th ed. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2004.
  • Blanc, D. Ellsworth. The Supreme Court: Issues and Opinions. Huntington, N.Y.: Nova Science Publishers, 2001.
  • Epstein, Lee, et al. The Supreme Court Compendium: Data, Decisions, and Developments. 3d ed. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2003.
  • Melone, Albert P. Researching Constitutional Law. Carbondale, Ill.: HarperCollins, 1990.
  • Stern, Robert L., Eugene Gressman, Stephen M. Shapiro, and Kenneth S. Geller. Supreme Court Practice: For Practice in the Supreme Court of the United States. 7th ed. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of National Affairs, 1993.
  • Van Geel, Tyll. Understanding Supreme Court Opinions. 4th ed. New York: Longman, 2005.

Concurring opinions


News media coverage

Opinions, writing of

Reporters, Supreme Court

Supreme Court Reporter

United States Law Week

United States Reports