What is Dicta? Learn the Legal Definition

When you begin law school, there will be many new phrases and terms you’ll need to learn. Some, you may have heard before. But one term that is usually new to most students is “dicta.” What is dicta? What does dicta mean and why is it important for you to understand the role it plays in the law? 

“Dicta” is the abbreviated form of obiter dictum, which means “a remark by the way.” In the law, dicta is an observation or remark made by a judge in the opinion of a case which concerns the rule or application of the rule, but is not essential to the determination of the case.  To put it simply – dicta is something the judge writing the opinion wants you to know, but that doesn’t affect the outcome. 

How to Identify Dicta

When reading your case opinions and creating your case briefs, it’s important to identify dicta and differentiate it from the holding or rule of the case. You can find dicta by looking for discussions that are not central to the outcome of the case.  For example, is the opinion discussing history or policy? The judge may think that background information is important to a broader understanding of the rule, but it’s not directly tied to the case outcome. That may be dicta.  What about a hypothetical situation?  If the court describes a fact pattern that is different from what is being presented in this case, that is probably dicta. They may do this to illustrate how this rule would apply in other situations, even though it has no bearing on the current case.  Any time the opinion strays from the rules and reasoning necessary to determine the outcome of the case, that is likely dicta. 

Is Dicta Important? 

Yes! Dicta in legal opinions is important.  While it may not affect the outcome of the current case, dicta in a legal opinion offers insight into how the court thinks.  This can be helpful for seeing future trends in the law. Many times, what started as dicta in one opinion, turns into a holding in a future. 

So, how should you treat dicta in your case briefs and outlines?  You should include dicta in your case briefs for class.  Give it its own section. Just summarize what the court said, and make sure you understand it and can discuss it in class.  Your professor may or may not think it is important, but it should be in your brief so you are prepared if it comes up in classroom conversation. 

Regarding your outlines, whether or not to include the court’s dicta depends on your professor and class discussions.  Sometimes, a professor may think that dicta is very important.  Maybe the dicta contradicts the ultimate outcome of the case, and your professor agrees with the dicta rather than the holding. Maybe the dicta helped create a greater understanding of the holding and the context surrounding it, which your professor thinks is important.  As with all classroom discussion – use your professor’s cues. If they spend time discussing the dicta in class, then they think it is important and it should be in your outline. 

Learning what dicta is and how it appears in court decisions is an important step towards a well-balanced understanding of your cases. While the dicta may not have had an effect on the case in which it appears, it will give you great insight into what the court is thinking and what it may decide in the future.  

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