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The Supreme Court Long Conference Will Kill Your Appellate Dreams

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

The Supreme Court Justices will return from their long vacations this Monday, ready to kick off the Court's October 2015 term. They'll begin as they always do: with ritualized slaughter. Of cert petitions, that is.

Monday marks the Court's "long conference," where the Justices sift through almost 2,000 petitions for certiorari, rejecting almost all of them. It is, as The New York Times recounts, "where appeals 'go to die.'" Here's your insider guide to the killing fields.

The Systematic Destruction of Cert Petitions

During the long conference, the Justices review the petitions that have come up over the summer. And that's a massive amount of petitions to review. There are roughly 2,000 petitions, covering everything from what constitutes a cut-back to a retirement plan, to whether Obamacare's contraception mandate procedures violate the First Amendment, to whether grants of patent licenses must be in writing.

Of course, the Justices won't be looking at the petitions unaided. Before reaching the Justices, the petitions will go through the cert pool. Each Supreme Court clerk is assigned a petition from the pool and must write a memo to all the justices recommending if cert should be granted or denied. Except for Justice Alito's clerks. They're not allowed to swim with the other clerks (the cert pool is somewhat controversial) and presumably must review and recommend petitions directly to Justice Alito alone.

Few Survive the Long Conference

Almost all of the petitions will be denied. While a denied petition isn't unusual -- the Court accepts just about one percent of all cert petitions -- the long conference is particularly brutal. Here, your odds are half as good as during any other conference. During the long conference, the Justices will accept only about half of one percent of all the petitions.

Why is the long conference particularly hostile to appeals? The Times recently reviewed several explanations. First, the Justices could simply not want to fill up their year's calendar too soon. Though they get thousands of petitions every year, they usually only hear well under 100 cases. Grant too many of those at the start and you may miss out on important appeals later in the year.

Or, the Times suggests, the Court's cautiousness could be the result of hesitant new clerks. Young men, just a year or two out of Harvard or Yale law school -- and virtually nowhere else -- these clerks are more cautious at the start, much more willing to advise that a petition should be rejected than accepted.

Whatever the reason behind the slaughter, those who survive are in good shape. Last year, the Supreme Court overturned appellate court decisions 71 percent of the time, according to SCOTUSblog. Those aren't bad odds, if you can get them to hear your case.

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