The term opinion refers to a personal view, appraisal, or judgment that is based on information that is not sufficient to be certain. For instance, a person’s opinion may express his or her judgment about a person’s character, the attractiveness of a clothing style, or the quality of an automobile. In a legal sense, the term has a similar, though more specific meaning, depending on its use. To explore this concept, consider the following opinion definition.
Definition of Opinion
- A belief, or way of thinking about something; how someone things about a particular thing.
- A formal statement made by a court or judge, explaining the reasons for its decision.
1250-1300 Middle English
What is Opinion
Opinion is a belief that is stronger than an idea or intuition, but not as strong as having definite knowledge. Many people have a strong belief or judgment about a person, thing, or behavior that becomes their generally held opinion. For instance, a man may have the opinion that lawyers are arrogant and untrustworthy. While his life experience may have led to this assessment, he may not have actual facts to be positive about the trustworthiness of lawyers in general.
Fact and Opinion
People are quick to express what they know about any given situation, object, or person, though it is sometimes difficult to determine whether their expressions are based in fact or opinion. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines fact as “something that truly exists or happens; something that has actual existence; a true piece of information.” The same dictionary defines opinion as “a belief, judgment, or way of thinking about something.” A fact is something that can be proven by documentable evidence.
Examples of Fact
While technically, real facts are obtained only through scientific evaluation, the term is used in a more general way, referring to something that can be shown to have happened, to exist, or to be true. Speaking to the more general view of fact, there are four types:
- Evaluative Fact – A fact that is paired with a rule of law, to determine whether an action was reasonable or negligent.
- Analytical Fact – A fact that has been determined by applying a certain test.
- Empirical Fact – A fact that has been determined by one’s own sensory experience, especially through observation and/or experimentation.
- Metaphysical Fact – A natural phenomenon or event that exists or occurs without human input. For instance, a power-generating dam is a man-made fact; heavy rains that overflow the dam is a metaphysical fact.
John knew that Norman had a bad cough that had been hanging around for several weeks. Norman eventually got very ill, and was hospitalized, and eventually died of pneumonia. Norman’s family complains to the court that John is at fault for Norman’s death, as he did nothing to help him early in the illness. The court needs to understand one fact: was John responsible. And to answer that, John must have had a “duty of care” to aid Norman, because if he did not, he cannot be held liable for the man’s death.
The answers in the duty of care test will determine whether John had a moral and legal obligation to know about the illness, and to treat it. As it turns out in this example of analytical fact, John was Norman’s doctor, so the court determines the fact that John did have a duty of care.
Examples of Documentable Facts
- The office building was fumigated on August 23, 2014
- Amelia bought bread and milk at the corner store on Saturday
- My 83-year-old mother had a fever of 103 degrees on Wednesday evening
Examples of Opinion
Opinion is someone’s belief, feeling, or understanding, and can generally be identified by such phrases as:
- I believe . . .
- I think, or I thought . . .
- It is thought that . . .
- Those people always . . .
- It’s a sad day when . . .
Opinions can be mixed in with facts to add an element that cannot be proven.
Examples of Opinion Mixed with Fact
- The office building was fumigated on August 23, 2014, and that’s why Maria got cancer.
- Amelia bought bread and milk at the corner store on Saturday because she is too lazy to go to the mega mart.
- My 83-year-old mother had a fever of 103 degrees on Wednesday evening, and my sister just didn’t care.
There are some things for which many people hold the same opinion, making it difficult to evaluate statements about that thing, or to separate fact from opinion. For instance: “Robin Williams was the most hilarious, and wildly popular comedians of the 21st century.” It is true that Robin Williams was a comedian during that time period, and that many people found him very funny – but “wildly popular,” and “hilarious” are subjective adjectives. So is this sentence fact, or opinion?
In a general discussion, the distinction hardly matters, but in a legal context, fact and opinion must be separated.
Examples of Fact and Opinion in Answers to Trial Questions
Opinion or Fact?
|What qualifications does Mrs. Smith have to teach?||Mrs. Smith is one of our most dedicated teachers, and the children love her!||
|As Mr. Smith’s accountant, can you tell us if he reported all of the income from his professional football salary?||Mr. Smith is a generous man. The children at St. Agnes Hospital love him, and can’t wait for the gifts he brings to them.||
|What time did Mrs. Johnson leave the house to take little Timmy to the hospital?||She is a really good mother – I know she would have taken him as soon as she realized something was wrong.||
A court opinion is a formal, written explanation by a judge, or panel of judges, of how the court arrived at its ruling. Such a document spells out the rationale, case law, and legal principles that led to the decision, and is published at the direction of the court. Not every case decided by a court, however – even a higher court – is published. Published court opinions contain assertions of how the law is to be interpreted going forward; or they reinforce, make changes to, establish, or overturn existing law or precedent.
Although most published court opinions contain something new or different in the way a law is to be used, high profile cases in which the public has great interest often also result in the issuance of written opinions. In most cases heard by appellate and supreme courts, the court issues a Memorandum Decision, which is a written ruling on how the law applies to the particular case, and either affirms or reverses the lower court’s ruling. Unlike an Opinion, a Memorandum Decision does not establish precedent, and cannot be used in future rulings.
In the modern legal climate, attorneys find themselves being consulted about clients’ legal issues, often being asked whether a lawsuit or other action would be successful, or even advisable. In such cases, providing a written legal opinion enables the legal professional to offer advice that is precise, and which provides the client with enough information to ultimately make a decision about how to proceed.
Effective opinion writing begins with the qualities of good writing in general. The purpose of a legal opinion is to express the writer’s appraisal of the situation, thought processes, or advice. To do this, it is vital that the writer use clear and concise language, maintaining good spelling and grammar techniques, in order to avoid misunderstanding.
Some legal professionals cling to the use of legalese and antiquated language, but this makes for difficult reading. By using plain English, just saying what needs to be said, opinion writing becomes useful and efficient. In order to keep from getting lost in the complexity of the larger issue, the writer may break it down into a list of specific legal questions or issues. He or she may then address each separately, using clear, easy-to-understand language.
Organization when writing a legal opinion is key – addressing a list of legal issues might still be confusing, should they be presented in an illogical order. Once the issues have been separated, the list should be adjusted to reflect order, though modern software allows reorganization at any time, even during proofreading and review.
An expert opinion can only be given by someone who has garnered a high level of knowledge and skills in a particular subject or field. The American legal system recognizes that expert opinion, given by an “expert witness,” can be useful in helping the court understand a particular situation, determine the truth of certain facts that have been presented, and in problem-solving.
In a trial setting, expert opinion can only be provided by someone who has been approved by the court as an “expert.” This generally requires the witness have a high level of education, certification, training, and experience in the field for which he is to provide testimony.
Expert opinion is commonly relied upon to determine such issues as:
- Severity of injury
- The degree to which an injured person is likely to recover
- Health issues
- Degree of sanity
- Cause of equipment failure
- Complex financial issues
- Forensic evidence
Reading a Supreme Court Opinion
In reading a Supreme Court opinion, it is easy to get lost, and even confused. The Court must identify and address a lot of issues in order to lay out a roadmap to its ultimate decision. There is a formula used in writing such opinions. Understanding this, reading a Supreme Court opinion becomes easier, and more productive.
Identify the Separate Parts
Locating the separate parts of the Supreme Court opinion allows the reader to “read with purpose,” focusing on each part in turn. These separate parts include:
- Syllabus – While the syllabus is not part of the actual opinion, it summarizes the case, and the questions addressed by the Court, to make reading and understanding the decision easier. This section contains an outline of the facts of the case, and a brief summary of the path taken to arrive at the court’s decision.
- Main Opinion – This section is an official announcement of the Court’s decision on the case. It contains a detailed explanation of the legal rationale used to arrive at the decision.
- Concurring and Dissenting Opinions – It is very common for the judges, referred to as “justices,” to have differing opinions. In the Supreme Court, the majority rules, but every justice may express his or her opinion in writing. Concurring opinions may be written by justices who agree with the majority ruling, but for different reasons. Dissenting opinions are written by justices who disagree, or vote against, the court’s ruling. Each concurring and dissenting opinion expresses the individual’s reasoning behind his or her decision.
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to
- Liable – Responsible by law; to be held legally answerable for an act or omission.
- Precedent – A rule or principle established by a court, which other courts are obligated to follow.