How Does a Case Get to the Supreme Court?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on August 21, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Maybe you took a civics class in high school, maybe you didn't. And maybe you paid attention in that class, and maybe you stared out the window, wondering why it wasn't snowing yet and trying to will the clock to move faster with your mind. And now all of a sudden you're reading "Supreme Court Says This" and "Supreme Court Strikes Down That," and you're wondering, wait, why did they decide that, and how did that case go to the Supreme Court?

So, for those of you daydreaming during civics class and trying to calculate how many pieces of gum were stuck to the underside of your desk in the meantime, here's a quick refresher on how the Supreme Court hears cases.

Constitutional Power

Article III, Section 1, of the United States Constitution establishes the federal court system: "The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish." And Section 2 establishes the Court's jurisdiction, or the kinds of legal cases it can hear:

The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority; -- to all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public ministers and Consuls; -- to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction;--to Controversies to which the United States shall be a Party; -- to Controversies between two or more States; -- between a State and Citizens of another State; -- between Citizens of different States; --between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States, and between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects.

That's pretty much everything. While there are some limits to the kinds of disputes the Court can settle (it tries to avoid political questions, for example), the Supreme Court has the authority to review just about any lower court decision. But that doesn't mean that it will.

Courts and Pathways

The U.S. Courts put out a handy animation tracing a case's path to the Supreme Court. But that only applies to cases originally filed in lower federal courts. Local and state court decisions might also be subject to Supreme Court review, based on appeals. Few jury or judicial decisions are final; however, appeals may be limited by the subject matter of the appeal. Cases appealed through state appellate and supreme courts can make it to the Supreme Court eventually.

But, as we said, the Supreme Court doesn't review every judicial decision, nor does it accept every case appealed to it. Attorneys must first file a "petition for certiorari," including a history of the case, the basic facts, and the important legal issues the case presents, requesting the Court to hear the case and issue a ruling. And the likelihood the Court takes the case is slim -- it "granted cert" (as it's called) in just 53 cases last term, making the odds of actually getting to argue a case in the Supreme Court less than one percent.

Generally, the Court reserves its review for:

  • Cases involving a conflict of law: If lower courts disagree on how a legal issue should be decided;
  • Cases involving important matters of law: If the issue is one that must be resolved definitively by the highest court;
  • Cases that pique justices' interests: If an issue appeals (in the personal preference sense of the word) to a particular justice's area of expertise; and
  • Cases already decided and disregarded: If lower courts aren't properly following Supreme Court precedent.

Every now and then, the Supreme Court will reverse itself on an issue, as it did with racially segregated schools. But, for the most part, the Court is the final word on the biggest legal conflicts. And if you've got a legal issue you want decided, or a legal decision you want reviewed, your last stop might be the Supreme Court -- but your first stop should be a local attorney.

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