An Attempt to Define the Ratio Decidendi

“The point that decides the case.”

“The principle the case establishes.” (The focus of this definition is on what other judges make of the express ratio of the case. Of course, rationes can be extended, whittled down, or taken at face value. It is largely up to the court. This definition focuses on the actual precedent value of the case).

The rule of law towards which the court argues, upon which its holding is based, and in accordance with which similar cases shall be decided.

The abstract fruit of the court’s analysis.

The premise on which the court’s decision is based.

The holding as it exists in the Platonic realm of forms.

The law that judges make. (Strictly speaking, judges are said not to make the law but to “discover” it. Theoretically, rationes are retroactive).

The holding abstracted from its factual matrix.

The rule that resolves the issue necessary for the judgment.

A restatement of the holding in which the specific facts of the instant case are replaced with the legally relevant categories of fact they belong to.

Of course, no rule can be the ratio from which the actual judgment does not follow. What does that mean? It means that rationes do not attach to the resolution of every issue: only those issues whose resolution was necessary to give rise to the judgment.

So much for definitions. But there are unresolved, perhaps unresolvable questions. What if abstraction from the holding is not possible? Can the holding and the ratio be identical? What is the ratio when the court has to interpret a statute, when the court has to interpret the intent of the legislature? What is the ratio when there seems to be multiple reasons for the court’s rendering, none of which supreme? Do trial courts create rationes?