How Do Cases Reach the Supreme Court?

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Unlike all of the lower federal courts, the U.S. Supreme Court alone gets to decide which cases it will hear. In fact, while almost 8,000 new cases are now filed with the U.S. Supreme Court every year, only about 80 are actually heard and decide by the Court. How do those cases reach the Supreme Court?

It’s All About Certiorari

The Supreme Court will consider only cases for which at least four of the nine justices vote to grant a “writ of certiorari,” a decision by the Supreme Court to hear an appeal from a lower court.

“Certiorari” is a Latin word meaning “to inform.” In this context, a writ of certiorari informs a lower court of the Supreme Court’s intention to review one of its decisions.

People or entities wishing to appeal the ruling of a lower court file a “petition for writ of certiorari” with the Supreme Court. If at least four justices vote to do so, the writ of certiorari will be granted and the Supreme Court will hear the case. If four justices do not vote to grant certiorari, the petition is denied, the case is not heard, and the decision of the lower court stands.

In general, the Supreme Court grants certiorari or “cert” agreeing to hear only those cases the justices consider important. Such cases often involve deep or controversial constitutional issues such as religion in public schools.

In addition to the about 80 cases that are given “plenary review,” meaning they are actually argued before the Supreme Court by attorneys, the Supreme Court also decides about 100 cases a year without plenary review.

In addition, the Supreme Court receives over 1,200 applications for various types of judicial relief or opinion each year that can be acted upon by a single justice.

The Three Ways Cases Reach the Supreme Court

Appeals to Courts of Appeals Decisions

By far the most common way cases reach the Supreme Court is as an appeal to a decision issued by of one of the U.S. Courts of Appeal that sit below the Supreme Court.

The 94 federal judicial districts are divided into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a court of appeals. The appeals courts decide whether or not lower trial courts had applied the law correctly in their decisions. Three judges sit on the appeals courts and no juries are used. Parties wishing to appeal a circuit court’s decision file a petition for writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court as described above.

Appeals from State Supreme Courts

A second less common way in which cases reach the U.S. Supreme Court is through an appeal to a decision by one of the state supreme courts. Each of the 50 states has its own supreme court that acts as the authority on cases involving state laws. Not all states call their highest court the “Supreme Court.” For example, New York calls its highest court the New York Court of Appeals.

While it is rare for the U.S. Supreme Court to hear cases appeals to rulings by the state supreme courts dealing with issues of state law, the Supreme Court will hear cases in which the state supreme court’s ruling involves an interpretation or application of the U.S. Constitution.

Under the Court’s ‘Original Jurisdiction’

The least likely way in which a case might be heard by the Supreme Court is for it to be considered under the Court’s “original jurisdiction.” Original jurisdiction cases are heard directly by the Supreme Court without going through the appeals courts process.

Under Article III, Section II of the Constitution, the Supreme Court has original and exclusive jurisdiction over rare but important cases involving disputes between the states, and/or cases involving ambassadors and other public ministers. Under federal law at 28 U.S.C. § 1251. Section 1251(a), no other federal court is allowed to hear such cases.

Typically, the Supreme Court considers no more than two cases a year under its original jurisdiction.

Most cases heard by the Supreme Court under its original jurisdiction involve property or boundary disputes between states. Two examples include Louisiana v. Mississippi and Nebraska v. Wyoming, both decided in 1995.

Court’s Case Volume has Soared Over the Years

Today, the Supreme Court receives from 7,000 to 8,000 new petitions for writ of certiorari – request to hear a case – per year.

By comparison, during 1950, the Court received petitions for only 1,195 new cases, and even in 1975, only 3,940 petitions were filed. 

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Longley, Robert. "How Do Cases Reach the Supreme Court?" ThoughtCo, Nov. 16, 2016, thoughtco.com/how-do-cases-reach-supreme-court-4113827. Longley, Robert. (2016, November 16). How Do Cases Reach the Supreme Court? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/how-do-cases-reach-supreme-court-4113827 Longley, Robert. "How Do Cases Reach the Supreme Court?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/how-do-cases-reach-supreme-court-4113827 (accessed December 13, 2017).