Obiter dictum

Obiter dictum

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Obiter dictum is Latin
Latin is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. It, along with most European languages, is a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. Although it is considered a dead language, a number of scholars and members of the Christian clergy speak it fluently, and...

 for a statement "said in passing". An obiter dictum is a remark or observation made by a judge
A judge is a person who presides over court proceedings, either alone or as part of a panel of judges. The powers, functions, method of appointment, discipline, and training of judges vary widely across different jurisdictions. The judge is supposed to conduct the trial impartially and in an open...

 that, although included in the body of the court's opinion, does not form a necessary part of the court's decision. In a court opinion, obiter dicta include, but are not limited to, words "introduced by way of illustration, or analogy or argument." Unlike the rationes decidendi
Ratio decidendi
Ratio decidendi is a Latin phrase meaning "the reason" or "the rationale for the decision." The ratio decidendi is "[t]he point in a case which determines the judgment" or "the principle which the case establishes."...

, obiter dicta are not the subject of the judicial decision, even if they happen to be correct statements of law. Under the doctrine of stare decisis
Stare decisis
Stare decisis is a legal principle by which judges are obliged to respect the precedents established by prior decisions...

, statements constituting obiter dicta are therefore not binding, although in some jurisdictions, such as England and Wales
England and Wales
England and Wales is a jurisdiction within the United Kingdom. It consists of England and Wales, two of the four countries of the United Kingdom...

, they can be strongly persuasive.

An example of an instance where a court opinion may include obiter dicta is where a court rules that it lacks jurisdiction
Jurisdiction is the practical authority granted to a formally constituted legal body or to a political leader to deal with and make pronouncements on legal matters and, by implication, to administer justice within a defined area of responsibility...

 to hear a case or dismisses the case on a technicality. If the court in such a case offers opinions on the merits of the case, such opinions may constitute obiter dicta. Less clear-cut instances of obiter dicta occur where a judge makes a side comment in an opinion to provide context for other parts of the opinion, or makes a thorough exploration of a relevant area of law. Another example would be where the judge, in explaining his ruling, provides a hypothetical set of facts and explains how he or she believes the law would apply to those facts.

In reaching decisions, courts sometimes quote passages of obiter dicta found in the texts of the opinions from prior cases, with or without acknowledging the quoted passage's status as obiter dicta. A quoted passage of obiter dicta may become part of the holding or ruling in a subsequent case, depending on what the latter court actually decided and how that court treated the principle embodied in the quoted passage.

Obiter dicta can be influential. One example in United States Supreme Court history is the 1886 case Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad
Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad
Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company, was a United States Supreme Court case dealing with taxation of railroad properties...

. A passing remark from Chief Justice
Chief Justice
The Chief Justice in many countries is the name for the presiding member of a Supreme Court in Commonwealth or other countries with an Anglo-Saxon justice system based on English common law, such as the Supreme Court of Canada, the Constitutional Court of South Africa, the Court of Final Appeal of...

 Morrison R. Waite, recorded by the court reporter before oral argument, now forms the basis for the doctrine that juristic persons are entitled to protection under the Fourteenth Amendment
Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution
The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was adopted on July 9, 1868, as one of the Reconstruction Amendments.Its Citizenship Clause provides a broad definition of citizenship that overruled the Dred Scott v...

. Whether or not Chief Justice Waite's remark constitutes binding precedent is arguable, but subsequent rulings treat it as such.

In other instances, obiter dicta can suggest an interpretation of law that has no bearing on the case at hand but might be useful in future cases. The most notable instance of such an occurrence is the history of the famous Footnote 4 to United States v. Carolene Products Co.
United States v. Carolene Products Co.
United States v. Carolene Products Company, 304 U.S. 144 , was an April 25, 1938 decision by the United States Supreme Court. The case dealt with a federal law that prohibited filled milk from being shipped in interstate commerce...

(1938), which while rejecting use of the Due Process Clause to block most legislation suggested that the clause might be applied to strike down legislation dealing with questions of "fundamental right." This obiter dictum is generally considered to have led to the doctrine of strict scrutiny
Strict scrutiny
Strict scrutiny is the most stringent standard of judicial review used by United States courts. It is part of the hierarchy of standards that courts use to weigh the government's interest against a constitutional right or principle. The lesser standards are rational basis review and exacting or...

 (and subsequently intermediate scrutiny
Intermediate scrutiny
Intermediate scrutiny, in U.S. constitutional law, is the second level of deciding issues using judicial review. The other levels are typically referred to as rational basis review and strict scrutiny ....

) in racial-, religious-, and sexual-discrimination cases, first articulated in Korematsu v. United States
Korematsu v. United States
Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 , was a landmark United States Supreme Court case concerning the constitutionality of Executive Order 9066, which ordered Japanese Americans into internment camps during World War II....


The arguments and reasoning of a dissenting opinion also constitute obiter dicta. These, however, might also be cited should a court determine that its previous decision was in error, as when the United States Supreme Court cited Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. was an American jurist who served as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1902 to 1932...

's dissent in Hammer v. Dagenhart
Hammer v. Dagenhart
Hammer v. Dagenhart, 247 U.S. 251 , was a United States Supreme Court decision involving the power of Congress to enact child labor laws...

when it overturned Hammer in United States v. Darby Lumber Co.
United States v. Darby Lumber Co.
United States v. Darby Lumber Co., 312 U.S. 100 , was a case in which the United States Supreme Court upheld the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, holding that the U.S. Congress had the power under the Commerce Clause to regulate employment conditions. The unanimous decision of the Court in this...