In the United States, the federal and state court systems are comprised of trial courts, intermediate courts of appeal, and a supreme court of last resort.
An opinion (aka decision or case) is an appellate court ruling which applies principles from previously decided cases (precedent) to resolve a legal issue.
There are generally three levels of a U.S. court system:
Issues of Fact v. Issues of Law
On the trial level, there are two types of findings.
Issues of fact
Issues of law
Trial Court Orders
Trial courts issue orders to resolve legal issues by, for example, granting a divorce, sentencing a defendant to jail, or awarding a plaintiff damages. These orders have no precedential value. States do not do a good job of making these orders available electronically on their docket websites, but now some are available on Westlaw and Lexis.
Pima County Example of a Trial Court Order
Court of Appeals Opinions
Appellate opinions are what you read in your casebooks! Trial court decisions are reviewed by intermediate appellate courts (Court of Appeals) which issue opinions that are precedent for trial courts. A party who is unhappy with a trial outcome can appeal by arguing that the trial court erred on an issue of law.
The Court of Appeals decides the issue and writes an opinion explaining the reasoning for the decision. The losing party may appeal to the Supreme Court.
Supreme Court Opinions
The party who loses at the Court of Appeals level can appeal to the Supreme Court arguing that the court made a mistake on an issue of law. If the Supreme Court agrees to hear the case, it decides the issue and writes an opinion explaining the reasoning for the decision. These opinions are precedent for both the Court of Appeals and trial courts.