It seems that every year the Supreme Court of the United States (Abbreviated SCOTUS) issues at least one highly publicized Opinion that is then subject to hundreds of thousands of various "opinions" in the established news media, and across all forms of social media worldwide. In some cases, these "opinions" are based on actually having read the source documents that caused the kerfuffle in the first place. I estimate that the vast majority of these "opinions" are likely based on second hand knowledge or excerpts of the actual Opinion. That doesn't have to be the case.
Where do I find the actual opinion?
If Google, Bing, Yahoo, or your favorite search engine will more than likely provide you hundreds of places to find a copy of the opinion. If you want to get it directly from the source, you can visit the Supreme Court's website (http://www.supremecourt.gov/). There you will find a variety of completely free resources that will allow you to properly research a case, and come up with your own opinion. On the far left side of the menu you will find an "Opinions" tab. Hovering over it, you will be given a variety of additional options. If you are looking for the Opinion that everyone is talking about, click on the very first menu item "Latest Slip Opinions". That will take you to the list of most recent opinions.
How do I know which opinion I want to read?
Often times, the "opinions" you hear online or on the news won't actually reference the proper case name. When you mouse over each case name, it will give you a brief topical summary. When you find the one your are looking for, click on that case name. For example, the "Marriage Equality Case" is actually Obergefell v. Hodges.
Anatomy of an Opinion
Once you've clicked on the Opinion you would like to read, you will be met with a giant PDF that may likely be over 100 pages long. Have no fear. While all of it is "important" it isn't necessary that you read ever word of all 100+ pages to get a more clear understanding of the opinion.
This is the first section you will see. You can consider this a summary of the overall opinion. If you read nothing else, read this section. However, if you intend to read the full opinion of the court, you can skip this section.
Opinion of the Court
This is the "Meat and Potatoes" of the document, and where you will get the most bang for your time. Reading the whole opinion will take up a fair amount of time, so grab a cup of coffee and get down to business. The best part about reading the actual opinion is that you will get the full context of the Justices logic. Often times, the Justice writing the opinion will lead you on an adventure traversing specific facts of the case, relevant SCOTUS opinions from years past, and logical steps in between. When you reach "It is so ordered" you've reached the end of the majority opinion.
At the end of the opinion you will reach the Appendices section. This is more a less the bibliography of the Opinion above. If you really want to "nerd out" you can look up those other opinions and legislation to read them as well.
I would venture to say that almost every widely publicized Opinion of the SCOTUS will have a dissenting opinion. The first important thing to know is that this particular portion of the document is relatively meaningless in terms of the overall ruling. If a majority of the judges agreed on an opinion, that opinion will hold. Every now and again, the court will issue what's known as a "Plurality" opinion. This post only deals with an opinion that is at least 5-4.
The dissenting opinion section is an opportunity for the judges that disagreed with the majority to "air their grievances" so to speak. Reading the dissenting opinions can certainly be educational and sometimes entertaining, so I would recommend reading them as well if you have the time. There are usually more than one. For example in Obergefell v. Hodges Chief Justice Roberts delivered the first dissenting opinion shown. That opinion was "joined" or agreed to by other justices as well. However, Justice Thomas and Justice Alito also wrote separate dissenting opinions. These individual dissents will often give you some insight into the personality of the justice, and how they view both specific issues and broader constitutional issues.
Want to do even more?
You can actually listen to the Oral Arguments made before the court long before these opinions were ever written! You can find them at http://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/argument_audio.aspx. Listening to the questions of the justices and the answers of the attorneys can sometimes provide even more insight into the thinking of the court. These arguments along with the opinions are what many SCOTUS scholars or media outlets use to try and predict case outcomes before they even occur!
Do you have questions?
If you have questions about this post, please do not hesitate to contact us! We would be happy to help educate you further, or provide direction to additional resources.