How to Read Florida Supreme Court Opinions
Below are answers to frequently asked questions about supreme court opinions.
Who can explain what an opinion means?
Many times people without law degrees can understand the main points of court opinions, although some of the finer points may require specialized training. For example, most news reporters don’t have law degrees. Yet they write about legal decisions all the time after learning the basics of reading a court opinion. The same is true for most people involved in court cases. The questions and answers that follow are intended to help you understand some basic points about reading opinions and better understanding them.
What if I need help understanding an opinion?
The best sources of public commentary on the meaning of an opinion are experts like law professors or attorneys experienced in the field or the attorneys actually involved in the case. And they may have differing views about what the opinion actually means. This is because opinions often do not answer all possible remaining questions. Courts follow a custom of only answering questions absolutely needed to decide the case, while leaving other questions for the future. The Florida Bar may be able to help you find those people who are able to comment. You also can find a list of attorneys actually involved in the case at the bottom of each court opinion.
Why can’t I call the Court and ask someone to explain an opinion?
Ethics rules in the court are very strict. Neither the Justices nor court staff can explain what an opinion means. There is a basic ethics rule at the Florida Supreme Court that all staff and the Justices must follow: "The opinion speaks for itself." People who are interested in more background about a legal case might want to look into legal briefs filed by the parties or into lower court decisions. Sometimes press reports provide general background.
Can I find out what date a particular opinion will be released?
The Court does not announce in advance when any particular decision will be released. It has designated Thursday mornings at 11 a.m. as the day and time for regular release of opinions. If Thursday is a holiday, the Court will move the release back to Wednesday. But the Court can and does issue opinions at other times if situations warrant an “out-of-calendar” release, especially where the case is being heard on an emergency basis or has been expedited. Cases involving active death warrant signed by the Governor, for example, are usually expedited.
Where can I find Florida Supreme Court opinions once they are released?
Opinions are posted on the Court’s Opinion Webpage for access by anyone 24 hours a day. There is no charge.
How can I find out exactly who wrote an opinion?
The Court does not always reveal the author of an opinion but it always shows how each justice voted. Justices agree (concur) with a decision or disagree (dissent). Sometimes they only agree with part of a decision (concur in part and dissent in part), or they may agree with the result but not the reasoning used to reach that result (concur in result only). Occasionally a justice does not participate in a case (recusal). The recusal is noted with the votes. Here are some important pointers about how to interpret the abbreviations and Latin words that give information about the Justices involved in writing the opinion:
- The last name of the author, if revealed, appears at the top right before the text of the opinion begins. The last name is followed by “J.” to denote “Justice” or “C.J.” to denote “Chief Justice.” For example, “Smith, J.” stands for “Justice Smith” – “J.” is not the first initial of the justice’s first name.
- When the words “Per Curiam” appear before the text of the opinion, the author is not revealed. This Latin phrase translates “By the Court.” A media story that refers to an “unsigned” opinion is referring to a “Per Curiam” decision. So, in everyday language, “Per Curiam” means the opinion is issued by the entire Court, not by any single Justice. Journalists usually say these opinions are "unsigned."
- Whether or not the author is revealed, the votes of all the justices will be found at the end of the majority opinion. Sometimes this is near the final page of the opinion but often it is not because there may be concurring and dissenting opinions that follow. If the opinion is a “Per Curiam” opinion, seven names will be listed, in order of seniority.
- Remember, the first name listed at the end of the majority opinion is not the author of the opinion. Instead the author, if revealed, is listed at the beginning of the opinion. Note also, that if the author is revealed at the beginning of the opinion, only six names will be listed at the end of the majority opinion because one name – the author’s name – is at the beginning.
- The justices are listed at the end of an opinion according to seniority, and the chief justice is always considered the most senior. Thus, the first name on the list of justice names at the end of an opinion is always the most senior justice supporting the opinion – not the author of the opinion. The author’s name, if one is given, will only appear at the start of an opinion. It is a common mistake for people to assume that the Chief Justice wrote a Per Curiam or unsigned opinion because her or his name appears first in the list at the end of the opinion. But this is not the case.
- The abbreviation “JJ.” following a list of justices’ names stands for the plural word “Justices.”
- Unless they are recused, justices concur or dissent or take similar positions, such as “concur in result only” or “concur in part and dissent in part.” It is the prerogative of individual justices to write concurring or dissenting opinions. If they do, these opinions follow the majority opinion and the listing of justice votes.
What do the names, letters and numbers at the very top of the opinion mean?
The case number appears first and is used by all of the Florida state courts for their internal filing system. First comes the abbreviation "No." (meaning "number") followed by letters and numbers like the example "SC17-100." The letters "SC" in this example stand for "Supreme Court", the next two numbers indicate the filing year of 2017, and the final numbers after the dash indicate that this was the 100th case filed with the Florida Supreme Court in the year 2017.
Below these numbers appear the "style" of the case (often something like John Smith v. Jane Doe), which identifies the names of the people who have brought their legal disagreement into court. Sometimes the name will simply indicate what the case is about. For example, "In re Rules of Judicial Administration" means the case is about proposed changes to the Rules of Judicial Administration, which are the internal rules for state court operations. The Latin words "In re" mean "about" or "in the matter of."
All of this case information can be used to find the briefs filed by the parties in the online docket, which can be found on the Court’s website, www.floridasupremecourt.org. If the Court held an oral argument in the case, it was webcast and also archived and can be watched at any time by anyone.
What does the information at the bottom of an opinion mean?
After the listing of the justices, there may be information about when the opinion becomes final and whether the Court will permit the parties to ask for a rehearing. The final information included in every opinion is a listing of the attorneys who represented the parties in the case. For reporters with questions about the meaning or scope of an opinion, these may be good sources since court staff cannot interpret opinions.
Where can I find more detailed information about the Court's opinion-writing process?
For more information about the operation of the Florida Supreme Court, two reports might be useful.
- “The Operation & Jurisdiction of the Florida Supreme Court”
- “Florida Supreme Court Internal Operating Procedures Manual.”
For more information: firstname.lastname@example.org
Analysis of Supreme Court Caseload