In general, a court opinion in a reporter will contain the following parts, but take note that not all reporters include every section listed here.
The most important thing to remember is that the opinion written by the court - the part which actually constitutes the law- does not begin until the section marked "Opinion." Generally, the sections appearing before the "Opinion" are added by the publisher to aid in understanding the decision. These sections are not considered law and should not be quoted or cited as part of the decision.
Heading: contains the basic information needed to identify the case, court, and where to find the decision. Below is a sample case with the parts of the heading labeled.
EDITH JONES et al., on behalf of herself and a class of others similarly situated, Petitioners v. R. R. DONNELLEY & SONS COMPANY
Case number assigned by the court:
Court in which case was heard:
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
Citations to reporters publishing this decision:
541 U.S. 369; 124 S. Ct. 1836; 158 L. Ed. 2d 645; 2004 U.S. LEXIS 3236; 72 U.S.L.W. 4332; 93 Fair Empl. Prac. Cas. (BNA) 993; 85 Empl. Prac. Dec. (CCH) P41,634; 17 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 266
ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SEVENTH CIRCUIT.
Jones v. R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co., 305 F.3d 717, 2002 U.S. App. LEXIS 18842 (7th Cir. Ill., 2002)
Reversed and remanded.
Case Summary and Headnotes: In general, these sections provide background information on the case and supply key legal concepts and terms covered in the decision. Not all reporters contain these sections or present the information in exactly the same way. For an example, LexisNexis Academic has quick guide to understanding what the caselaw summaries and headnotes are that appear at the beginning of decisions found on LexisNexis Academic:
Decision: A short summary of the holding of the opinion. From the example:
Former employees' claims, arising under 1991 amendment to 42 USCS § 1981, for hostile work environment, wrongful termination, and failure to transfer held governed by 28 USCS § 1658(a)'s 4-year statute of limitations.
Summary: A brief summary of the facts, history, and holding of the court in the case.
Syllabus: Another summary of the decision in the opinion inserted by the reporter.
Counsel: A list of the attorneys representing the parties in the case.
Opinion: This is where the decision from the court which constitutes the law begins. Usually this will start by naming the judge who wrote the opinion.
Opinions usually begin with a history of the facts and legal issues of the case. The court will then look to relevant statutes or past decisions (precedent) for law that can be applied to the facts. The court then analyzes and applies the law to the facts and makes a ruling based on that analysis.
In higher courts, such as the United States Supreme Court, where a group of judges hears and decides a case, the opinion could be referred to as the majority opinion, meaning most of the judges agreed with the opinion written by one judge. Often the majority opinion will also list the individual judges who joined in the decision. At the end of the majority opinion there might be a dissenting opinion written by one judge and joined by other judges who disagreed with majority opinion. The dissenting opinion does not usually have precedential value for lower courts trying to decide cases in the future.