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According to Ryan C. Black and James F. Spriggs II, in their analysis of trends in Supreme Court decisions, the shortest opinion is a mere ten words. Unfortunately, their paper didn't cite the case to which they referred, nor the criteria used for determining which comments counted as opinions, as opposed to orders, or summaries from the Reporter of Decisions.

The median length of an opinion has increased significantly over the years, from an average of 763 words in the first 20 years of the court (1790-1810) to an average of 4,250 words today. Earlier opinions were more likely to have been given orally, then summarized for publication by the Reporter of the Court, so it's difficult to gauge which opinion from that era may have been shortest. In 1834, the Supreme Court rules changed to require Justices to submit written opinions on each case. While these are more reliable sources of information, all viewed opinions substantially exceeded Black's and Spriggs' 10-word claim.

Several days' research in the Supreme Court database turned up the following possibilities, based solely on direct quotes or written opinions from the Justices. Reporter summaries and orders issued without comment were disqualified from the search.

United States v. Barker, 15 US 395 (1817) 6 Words

In an appeal to the Supreme Court in which Barker prevailed over the government, his request for reimbursement of costs met the following comment from Chief Justice John Marshall: "The United States never pays costs." (While this quote is only six words long, it may qualify more as a statement than an opinion.)

Beatty v. Maryland, 11 US 281 (1812) 10 Words

Decided: a final account settled by an administrator with the orphans' court, is not conclusive evidence in his favor upon the issue of devastavit vel non.
Justice Gabriel Duval delivered the opinion of the Court: "The account was only binding upon the representatives of the estate, the distributees, and they might still open it in the general court. But the creditors are no parties to the settlement of the account, and cannot be bound by it.
"There can be no doubt that the judgment against the administratrix, the inventory and two first accounts were conclusive evidence of a devastavit."
Chief Justice John Marshall concurred: "I believe that is the law throughout the United States." (Meets the ten-word criteria, but, again, may not fit the criteria for an opinion.)

Turner v. Enrille, 4 US 7 (1799) 13 Words

In reversing a South Carolina case awarding damages and issuing a writ of error, the Court decided per curiam, "The decision in the case of Bingham v. Cabot must govern the present case." (13 words)
Perhaps the shortest opinions in recent history are per curiam decisions:

Mohawk Industries, Inc., v. Williams, 546 US ___ (2005) 66 Words

The writ of certiorari limited to Question 1 presented by
the petition, granted at 546 U. S. ___ (2005), is dismissed
as improvidently granted. The petition for a writ of certio-
rari is granted. The judgment is vacated, and the case is
remanded to the United States Court of Appeals for the
Eleventh Circuit for further consideration in light of Anza
v. Ideal Steel Supply Corp., ante, p. ___.
(66 words; not bad for the 2005 Court)

Claiborne v. United States, 551 US ___ (2007) 42 Words

Per Curiam: The Court is advised that the petitioner died in St. Louis, Missouri, on May 30, 2007. The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit is therefore vacated as moot. See United States v. Munsingwear, Inc., 340 U. S. 36 (1950). (42 words; even better)

Research continues. If shorter opinions are located, this question will be updated appropriately.

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Q: What is the shortest US Supreme Court opinion?
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