To understand a plurality opinion, or a plurality decision, keep in mind that a plurality is where one person receives the most votes, but does not receive a majority of the votes (more than half).
Plurality Opinion: A Majority of the Judges on an Appellate Court Panel do not Agree on the Same Reasoning
As discussed in the video below, at the appellate level in the United States, judges sit on a panel – – meaning more than one judge presides. Unlike in the trial courts, where there is just one judge, at the appellate level there are usually at least three judges.
But what if the majority of justices cannot agree on the rationale for deciding which party should prevail? This results in a plurality opinion.
For example, the Supreme Court of the United States has nine justices, and usually all nine of them will participate in deciding cases.
Let’s say the Supreme Court must decide a case between the plaintiff-appellant and the defendant-appellee. Four justices think the plaintiff should win. We’ll call these judges Justice A, Justice B, Justice C, and Justice D. All four judges also agree on the reasons why the plaintiff should win. Justices A-D write an opinion explaining why plaintiff should prevail.
But four justices disagree. Justice E, Justice F, Justice G, and Justice H think that the defendant should win. Justices E – H join together and write an opinion explaining why the defendant should win.
Now, plaintiff and defendant are tied 4-4. There is no majority.
The last judge, Justice I, agrees that the plaintiff should win. However, she disagrees with Judges A-D as to why the plaintiff should win. She writes a concurring opinion in which she explains that the plaintiff should win, but for different reasons.
Now, the plaintiff has won on appeal. Five justices agree with him. But only four justices agree with why he should win. Four is less than half of nine, therefore, there is no majority opinion.
Instead, we have a plurality opinion. Justices A-D wrote the plurality opinion because they wrote the opinion of the majority of the judges who favored plaintiff. Justice I wrote a concurring opinion in which she agreed with the plurality but for a different reason.
Justices E – H wrote a dissenting opinion, in which they disagreed with the other justices on the Court.