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How Does the U.S. Supreme Court Decide Whether To Hear a Case?

U.S. Supreme Court decisions have shaped American history. Their rulings have ended racial segregation, enforced child labor laws, kept firearms away from schools, and given the federal government the teeth it needs to regulate interstate commerce. But how does the Supreme Court decide what cases to hear? If you had a dispute you wanted the Supreme Court to hear, how would you get it there?

This article summarizes the Supreme Court's role in the United States government and the effect of Supreme Court precedent. It then sets out how the Supreme Court decides which cases to hear, including the procedure for petitioning the court to hear a case and factors the Court considers in determining whether to consider a case.

What Is the U.S. Supreme Court?

The U.S. Constitution is known as the supreme law of the land and grants all of our constitutional rights. Generally speaking, the U.S. Supreme Court decides whether laws and actions are constitutional or unconstitutional. As of 2023, the Supreme Court consists of nine Justices (one Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices) who decide each case and controversy. The Justices are nominated by the President of the United States and confirmed by the Senate.

The U.S. government is comprised of the executive branch, the legislative branch, and the judicial branch. The three branches derive their powers from the U.S. Constitution and are, for the most part, independent of one another.

The judicial branch consists of the courts in the United States. The judiciary's role is to interpret the laws passed by Congress and executed by the executive branch. The judicial branch alone interprets federal court cases and controversies. The judicial branch, however, has no power to enforce its decisions; those powers are left to the legislature and executive. The other branches are, in theory, unable to influence a court's interpretation of the law.

The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court of the judicial branch, also known as a court of last resort. A case must involve an issue of federal law or otherwise fall within the jurisdiction of federal courts. A case that involves only a matter of state law or parties within a state will likely stay within the state court system. There, the state's supreme court would be the court of last resort.

The Role of Supreme Court Precedent

The Supreme Court's precedent, also known as prior case law, guides lower courts in ruling on cases and controversies. The precedential opinions of the Court effectively provide the interpretation of the law that lower courts and the Supreme Court itself must follow. This legal principle is known as the doctrine of stare decisis.

Although stare decisis states the Supreme Court should follow its precedent, the judiciary's purpose is to uphold the Constitution. Thus, the Supreme Court sometimes overrules its precedent if the prior decision is unconstitutional.

Supreme Court precedent has shaped the United States' history. There are too many landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions to name in this article, but the following are a few examples of notable cases:

  • Dredd Scott v. Sanford (1857): The Supreme Court's decision in Dredd Scott v. Sanford upheld slavery in the United States. Dredd Scott is perhaps the most controversial decision of the Court. The Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution later overruled the decision.
  • Gideon v. Wainwright (1963): In Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court held that states must provide legal representations to criminal defendants who cannot afford one. The case involved a prisoner who filed a writ of habeas corpus because the lower court did not appoint him an attorney. The case bolstered the right to due process for defendants involved in criminal cases.
  • Miranda v. Arizona (1967): The landmark Supreme Court case of Miranda v. Arizona established that law enforcement officers must read a suspect their Miranda rights before they begin custodial interrogation. The Miranda warning apprises suspects of their right against self-incrimination (Fifth Amendment) and their right to counsel (Sixth Amendment). The case had a profound effect on criminal law in the United States.
  • Brown v. Board of Education (1954): The decision of the Court in Brown v. Board of Education ended racial segregation in public schools. The opinion of the Court is widely regarded as one of the most important decisions in U.S. history.
  • Dobbs v. Jackson (2022): In Dobbs v. Jackson, the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade (1973) by concluding that the U.S. Constitution does not provide a right to abortions. The Dobbs decision allows the states to decide whether to allow or ban abortions.

As illustrated by the cases above, when the Supreme Court rules on a case, it often broadly affects American society.

From the Trial Court to the U.S. Supreme Court

A lawsuit typically starts at the trial court or federal district court level for state or federal cases, respectively. The trial judge will hear evidence and consider legal arguments from each side before issuing their opinion. If the judge decides all or part of the case against you, you can then appeal the case to a higher court.

Although court systems vary from state to state, generally, if a party appeals the trial court's decision, a court of appeals will hear the appeal. A circuit court will hear the case if a party appeals the district court's decision.

If a party disagrees with the appellate court, they may petition the Supreme Court to hear the case. If the Supreme Court grants a writ of certiorari, they will hear the case and issue the final decision.

If you decide to appeal to the Supreme Court, the first step is to prepare a petition for certiorari. The petition is the document the Court will read to decide whether to hear a case. In the petition, you will include a history of the case, the basic facts, and the important legal issues that your case presents. Your opponent will also have a chance to file a response. Other interested parties may also file briefs in support or against the petition (amicus briefs).

Your file will then go to a pool of Supreme Court clerks. They will review the documents and prior court proceedings. Then, they will summarize them for the justices and include a recommendation on whether to take the case. The Justices then make a final decision as to whether they will consider the case. If they decide to hear a case, they will issue a writ of certiorari.

If the Court chooses to hear your case, you are known as the petitioner, and the other party is the respondent. The parties will often present oral arguments to the Court. This involves arguing their case and answering the Justices' questions.

Once the Court hears the case, each Justice may write their own opinion. In some cases where the Justices agree on a case's disposition, the Court may issue one majority opinion. In other cases where the Justices split, there will be a majority opinion, which is the law of the land, and other opinions. If Justices disagree, they may write a dissenting opinion. Furthermore, if a Justice agrees with the majority but wants to clarify or explain an issue further, they may issue a concurring opinion.

Factors the Court Considers When Choosing Cases

The Supreme Court's decision to review a particular case is discretionary. Thus, the Court generally is not required to review a case. Every year, the Supreme Court receives about 10,000 petitions for certiorari but only hears about 80 cases. The Justices take a vote on whether to hear a particular case.

The Supreme Court's decision-making process is relatively mysterious. The Justices discuss the petitions for certiorari and vote on the cases the Court will hear. While the discussions and debates are private, based on the cases the Court has previously heard, the following factors appear to affect the decision as to whether the Court will hear a case:

  • The Court will hear cases to resolve a Conflict of Law: The U.S. judicial system consists of 13 federal circuits and 50 state supreme courts. When several of these courts reach different conclusions about an issue of federal or constitutional law, the Supreme Court may take the case. The Court's decision resolves the dispute and allows all areas of the country to operate under the same law.
  • The Court will hear Important cases: Sometimes, the Court will consider a highly unusual case such as United States v. Nixon (concerning the Watergate tapes) or Bush v. Gore (concerning the presidential election in 2000). If the Court determines the case presents an important social issue, such as abortion or the death penalty, the Court may hear the case on certiorari.
  • The Court will sometimes hear cases that speak to the Justices' Interests: Sometimes, Justices give preference to cases that decide an issue in one of their preferred areas of law.
  • The Court hears cases when Lower Courts Disregard past Supreme Court decisions: If a lower court blatantly disregards a past Supreme Court decision, the court may hear the case to correct the lower court. Alternatively, it may overrule the case without comment.

Generally, the Supreme Court hears important questions of law, fact, and Constitutional controversies. Thus, if law enforcement charges you with a misdemeanor, chances are the Supreme Court will not hear your petition for certiorari regarding it.

Contact an Attorney

The last time a party appeared in front of the U.S. Supreme Court without an attorney was in 1978. Therefore, if you are considering petitioning the Court to hear your case, consider contacting an attorney. An experienced attorney can help prepare your case to present to the Court.

Given that the Court receives approximately 10,000 petitions annually, your legal dispute will not likely make it that high up the judicial process. However, if you are involved in a legal dispute, an attorney can provide you with valuable information regarding the following:

Consider contacting an experienced litigation attorney near you if you are involved in or want to file a lawsuit.

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