-Submitted by David Drumm (Nal), Guest Blogger
Holdings, or ratio decidendi (Latin for “the rationale for the decision), are those parts of a court’s opinion that are binding on lower courts and later courts. This binding is referred to as the doctrine of stare decisis which provides hierarchical (vertical) and temporal (horizontal) continuity throughout the judicial system. Obiter Dicta (Latin for a statement “said in passing”), or dicta, are those parts of a court’s opinion that are not binding on lower courts and later courts. Dicta may suggest an interpretation of the law that may prove useful in future cases.
Distinguishing holdings and dicta is sometimes difficult and in some court opinions, intentionally so. Sub-categories of dicta, such as judicial dicta, and their different levels of authority, make the determination even more perilous. Dissenting opinions are always considered dicta.
Vertical stare decisis refers to the power of higher courts to bind the decisions of lower courts. All courts are bound by vertical precedent to follow the holdings in the decisions of the Supreme Court. Vertical stare decisis is generally considered absolute.
Horizontal stare decisis refers to the power of a court to bind itself. The Supreme Court while not bound by its prior decisions, does give them “substantial weight” in deliberations. There is a strong presumption that prior judicial articulations of the law are correct and generally should be followed. Horizontal stare decisis preserves a stable doctrine and prevents cycling.
While “we hold that …” or “the rule is …” are frequently giveaways to holdings, it is no guarantee in the holdings/dictum debate. In United States v. Rubin (1979), J. Friendly, in a concurring opinion, wrote:
A judge’s power to bind is limited to the issue that is before him; he cannot transmute dictum into decision by waving a wand and uttering the word “hold”.
Consider the example found in Minor v. Happersett (1875), a Supreme Court case dealing with the constitution of the State of Missouri that ordains: “Every male citizen of the United States shall be entitled to vote.” The following passage is from J. Waite’s opinion:
The Constitution does not, in words, say who shall be natural-born citizens. Resort must be had elsewhere to ascertain that. At common-law, with the nomenclature of which the framers of the Constitution were familiar, it was never doubted that all children born in a country of parents who were its citizens became themselves, upon their birth, citizens also. These were natives, or natural-born citizens, as distinguished from aliens or foreigners. Some authorities go further and include as citizens children born within the jurisdiction without reference to the citizenship of their parents. As to this class there have been doubts, but never as to the first. For the purposes of this case it is not necessary to solve these doubts.
Portland Examiner contributor Dianna Cotter claims the reference to the natural-born citizen clause in this passage is part of the holding. The Wikipedia entry correctly identifies this reference as obiter dictum.