The Language of Judicial Rulings

Legal literacy includes the ability to identify accurately the varieties of statements that a court makes in the course of a judicial opinion. The language in which a judicial statement appears may convey important information about the function of the statement within the underlying legal dispute and possibly its relation to other legal sources (when an opinion "follows," "limits," or "distinguishes" an earlier opinion). For example, the "holding" in a case, as distinguished from the court's recitation of a rule or its reasoning, refers to the court's answer to the issue presented for decision, that is, it refers to the court's application of the governing legal rule to the particular set of facts before it. In some cases the court states its holding explicitly; in other instances the holding must be inferred from the result in the case coupled with the court's key reasoning. In either event, the holding is the portion of an opinion that a court or a litigant may cite as precedent in a later case involving a similar issue. The holding should also be distinguished from a court's "finding" on a factual question in the case.

In the following examples drawn from the report of the decision in Palmore v. Sidoti, 466 U.S. 429 (1984), which is summarized below, select the term that will characterize most accurately and precisely the character and function of the state court's or the Supreme Court's statements in this case.

Summary of the case: In Palmore, the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed a state court decision which, in the words of the Court, had "divest[ed] a natural mother of her infant child because of her remarriage to a person of a different race" and awarded custody to the child's biological father, who had also remarried. 466 U.S. at 430. Although, in the words of the state court, "there is no issue as to either [parent's] devotion to the child, adequacy of housing facilities, or respectability of the new spouse of either parent," the court based its custody decision on a determination that, when the child became of "school age and thus more vulnerable to peer pressures, [she would] suffer from the social stigmatization that is sure to come" from living in a household with a stepparent of a different race. Id. at 431. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the state court on the ground that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibited a court from basing its holding on the ground of race. Id. at 433. In the words of the Supreme Court, "[i]t would ignore reality to suggest that racial and ethnic prejudices do not exist or that all manifestations of those prejudices have been eliminated. There is a risk that a child living with a stepparent of a different race may be subject to a variety of pressures and stresses not present if the child were living with parents of the same racial or ethnic origin. The question, however, is whether the reality of private biases and the possible injury they might inflict are permissible considerations for removal of an infant child from the custody of its natural mother. We have little difficulty concluding that they are not. (Footnote omitted.) The Constitution cannot control such prejudices but neither can it tolerate them. Private biases may be outside the reach of the law, but the law cannot, directly or indirectly, give them effect." Id.

For the full text of the Supreme Court decision, click here.


1. In Palmore v. Sidoti, the state court __________ that there was no question as to either biological parent's devotion to the child.

2. The state court __________ that remaining in a racially mixed household would ultimately have a damaging impact on the child.

3. The state court __________ that, where a child's biological mother had remarried a person of a different race and it was inevitable that the child would suffer social stigma if she remained with her mother in a mixed-race household, the best interests of the child would be served by awarding custody to the child's biological father.

4. In reversing the state court's decision in Palmore, the U.S. Supreme Court __________ that where a state court made no effort to place its custody determination on any ground other than the suspected impact of private racial biases, the state court's ruling violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

5. The Supreme Court __________ that the law cannot give effect to private biases.

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