Seriatim opinions

Announcement of a ruling of a multimember court through separate opinions provided by each of its judges.

The practice of issuing seriatim opinionsOpinions;writing of must be contrasted with the practice of issuing opinions for a court. The former involves each judge on a court providing a statement of the basis for his or her vote on the disposition of a case. The court’s judgment is based on which disposition receives the support of the majority of the judges. In this process, no opinion for the court majority is produced. The British Law LordsBritish Law Lords continue to dispose of cases by rendering seriatim opinions. The alternative method, producing a single opinion for the court, involves a majority of the judges agreeing to a single opinion and stating their joint justification for favoring a particular disposition of the case. Judges who concur with the majority can write separate opinions elaborating on their individual reasoning if it differs from that of the majority, and those who disagree with the majority opinion can produce joint or separate dissenting opinions.

Early in Supreme Court history, the justices debated whether the Court should issue seriatim opinions. English courts issued seriatim opinions, as did the courts in some of the states, such as Virginia, and Thomas Jefferson advocated the use of seriatim opinions. John Marshall,Marshall, John chief justice from 1801 to 1835, made a great effort to ensure that the Court produced only majority opinions and discouraged separate dissenting statements. This brought him into conflict with justices such as William Johnson and Joseph Story, who believed it their duty to express their dissenting views. Later, the Court began to issue opinions for the Court that expressed the common views of a majority of justices, supplemented by separate dissenting and concurring opinions, a practice that reflects the positions of both Marshall and his adversaries.

The question of whether to issue seriatim opinions or opinions for the Court centers on whether the Court is perceived as an institution larger than the justices who are serving at the time or as merely the sum of the sitting justices.

Further Reading

  • Blanc, D. Ellsworth. The Supreme Court: Issues and Opinions. Huntington, N.Y.: Nova Science Publishers, 2001.
  • Morgan, Donald G. Justice William Johnson: The First Dissenter. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1954.
  • Van Geel, Tyll. Understanding Supreme Court Opinions. 4th ed. New York: Longman, 2005.

British Law Lords


Concurring opinions


Edwards v. Aguillard

Johnson, William

Marshall, John

Opinions, writing of