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What is a Memorandum Decision?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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A memorandum decision is a legal judgment that provides a ruling on a matter presented in the court without offering an opinion. Such documents are usually short and to the point, as the only thing that the judge must do is issue a clear and unequivocal ruling. The memorandum decision is filed and becomes a matter of public record, available to anyone who wants to look it up, and the results are also made available to the people involved in the case.

Such legal decisions are seen in cases where a judge is not establishing any precedent. The matter takes place within the realm of well established case law and there are no disputes about the interpretation of that law or variances in opinion about how the law can and should be applied. A memorandum decision can choose to reference the laws used in making the decision so that people can look them up, but it does not include an opinion.

In an opinion, a judge explains how a judgment was arrived at, providing interpretation of the law and a discussion of its implications. Opinions must be included when a case sets a precedent because the judge must explain how interpretation of the law was applied to the case. When opinions are written, judges are also aware that the documents can be used and referenced in future cases. When a judge sets a precedent, the written opinion in the case becomes an element of case law and will be utilized by judges, attorneys, and law enforcement to interpret legal matters.

When writing a memorandum decision, a judge must confirm that the case and the judgment do not set a precedent. Judges can consult established case law, as well as legislation to determine that the issues at hand have been clearly discussed and settled in prior legal cases and that there are no elements that require justification or a lengthier written opinion. The memorandum decision amounts to a brief written announcement informing people about the judgment reached in the court.

In some regions, memorandum decisions are not subject to appeal, under the argument that an appeals court would arrive at the same judgment after reviewing the matters at hand in the case. An appellant can, however, argue that there was a fundamental flaw in the case, such as concealed evidence, problems with the way the case was presented, a conflict of interest, or other matters that would necessitate holding a new trial in the interests of fairness.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MyLawQuestions researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon267054 — On May 08, 2012

There is a case pending now where heirs named in a document oppose other heirs named in the same document/will. Basically, the question of the document's authenticity is in question.

The document is stapled together and the second and third pages have the signatures of deceased and are notarized, but the first page is not handwritten and has how the estate would be probated, but has not one authenticating signature, markings or anything else to prove its originality. All the witnesses can verify people and signatures but have no recollection of the contents of the first page and all others are deceased except the heirs themselves.

My take is that the rights of those who contest the document because their rights would not be protected here due to the possibility of tampering, fraud or anything, right down to questioning whether there ever was a will constructed in the first place. It's known to all that there was no lawyer involved during the said document /will. Sounds like a memorandum decision is at hand.

By nony — On Jan 15, 2012

@everetra - Since it’s not subject to appeal, I suppose that the memorandum decision might be more common in lower court rulings or in smaller cases.

I can’t imagine a memorandum decision being issued in a big case with a long, drawn out trial. In those circumstances the judge or judges go to great lengths to explain themselves, knowing for certain that their opinions will be subject to scrutiny by legal analysts and the public at large.

By everetra — On Jan 14, 2012

I suppose a federal decision that does not aim to set a precedent should not be appealed. What I gather from the article is that the memorandum decision is apparently so matter-of-fact that it requires little explanation.

In other words, the decision arrived at is self evident and so that’s why the court does not need to elaborate further with an opinion. I have no problem with these kinds of rulings because they exist in their own worlds, confined to that case alone.

It is decisions which set precedents that always concern me, because precedents become the building blocks for future rulings. One thing leads to another and soon judges are paving the way for decisions that may not reflect the spirit and intent of the original laws. This is at the heart of the debates we have about whether this law or that is constitutional.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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