The Syllabus in a Supreme Court Opinion

With the Court’s new Term underway, here’s a question that I’ve wondered about for a long time. Supreme Court opinions are prefaced by a syllabus (not prepared by the Justice writing the opinion) summarizing the decision qualified by the statement that the syllabus is not authority. Does anyone bother reading these anymore?  I don’t. I just read the opinions. Or I look at commentary on the opinions. Or the Westlaw notes. Perhaps, though, practitioners find these summaries useful. If not, though, the Court is probably wasting resources and delaying opinion releases unnecessarily by sill doing them.

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4 Responses

  1. Curmudgeonly Ex-Clerk says:

    Maybe the syllabus is for the aid of non-lawyers, like reporters covering the court or ordinary citizens who might be interested in a short summary of what was decided but would not necessarily be able to parse the opinion(s)? As a lawyer, I have read many USSC opinions, but not a single syllabus.

  2. Joe says:

    The average person, including some who have some specific interest in opinions, don’t have access to Westlaw.

    I find it curious that even lawyers would get NO benefit from a syllabus which provides not only a quick summary of the opinion but also things like what justices joined in what at times is a complex mix of opinions. It might not be written by the justice, but it is the OFFICIAL syllabus, which the justices find worthwhile adding. If there is no difference here and a private law collating service, it is curious.

    When someone has to look up a range of opinions, they are going to each and every time read each opinion, including skimming to see what concurring judges joined or how they decided something differently? For instance, such and such case might have two or three separate coalitions, sometimes made up one one justice, holding something. The syllabus provides a quick way to see this and also to skip over to the passage (with page citations) in question.

    A lawyer would do their due diligence and read the opinions (as well as having access to Westlaw or Lexis) but would think even some of them would find use here. It is quite possible for them personally (and many law professors) modern law opinion websites make the syllabus much less useful. But, they aren’t the only ones who use them.

    Finally, when the cases are immediately released, those law websites don’t have the time to provide such summaries anyway. How about during that window of time? I won’t begrudge the first comment, but I doubt lawyers who are looking over new SCOTUS opinions, including those in areas of law they are not really familiar with (such as a criminal attorney who has to break down a patent opinion) NEVER use the syllabus to get a quick immediate feeling of what was decided and/or to help skim sections of particular interest.

    • Curmudgeonly Ex-Clerk says:

      I don’t understand how the average person’s lack of access to Westlaw or Lexis fits into your comment as a whole. The USSC posts its opinions to its own website, and those opinions include the syllabus. Would you mind fleshing out what you mean?

      • Joe says:

        The professor said this:

        “I just read the opinions. Or I look at commentary on the opinions. Or the Westlaw notes. ”

        If someone does not have access to Westlaw, they could not access the notes. The syllabus for them would be a possible alternative.

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