Judicial Decision-Making and Implementation by the Supreme Court


Every Court opinion sets precedent for the future. The Supreme Court’s decisions are not always unanimous, however; the published majority opinion, or explanation of the justices’ decision, is the one with which a majority of the nine justices agree. It can represent a vote as narrow as five in favor to four against. A tied vote is rare but can occur at a time of vacancy, absence, or abstention from a case, perhaps where there is a conflict of interest. In the event of a tied vote, the decision of the lower court stands.

Most typically, though, the Court will put forward a majority opinion. If he or she is in the majority, the chief justice decides who will write the opinion. If not, then the most senior justice ruling with the majority chooses the writer. Likewise, the most senior justice in the dissenting group can assign a member of that group to write the dissenting opinion; however, any justice who disagrees with the majority may write a separate dissenting opinion. If a justice agrees with the outcome of the case but not with the majority’s reasoning in it, that justice may write a concurring opinion.

Court decisions are released at different times throughout the Court’s term, but all opinions are announced publicly before the Court adjourns for the summer. Some of the most controversial and hotly debated rulings are released near or on the last day of the term and thus are avidly anticipated (Figure).

An image of a group of people standing in front of a building. Some people are holding signs.
On June 26, 2015, supporters of marriage equality in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building eagerly await the announcement of a decision in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges (2015). (credit: Matt Popovich)
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One of the most prominent writers on judicial decision-making in the U.S. system is Dr. Forrest Maltzman of George Washington University. Maltzman’s articles, chapters, and manuscripts, along with articles by other prominent authors in the field, are downloadable at this site.

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