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

United States Supreme Court decisions have shaped history: important decisions 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 something you wanted the Supreme Court to hear, how would you get it there?

From Trial to Supreme Court: Procedure

It is important to note up front that not just any case can be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. A case must involve an issue of federal law or otherwise fall within the jurisdiction of federal courts.  A case that involves only an issue of state law or parties within a state will likely stay within the state court system where that state's supreme court would be the last step.

Assuming the case is capable of being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, the first step, most of the time, is to file a lawsuit in your local state or federal court. The trial judge would hear evidence and consider legal arguments from each side before making a decision. If the judge decides all or part of the case against you, you can then appeal the case to a higher court. When you have appealed as far as possible, you can consider appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.

If you decide to appeal to the Supreme Court at this stage, the next step is to prepare a "petition for certiorari." This is the document the Court will read in order to decide whether to hear a case. In that document, 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, and other interested parties may file briefs in support or against the petition. Your file will then go to a pool of Supreme Court clerks, who will review all of the documents, summarize them for the justices, and include a recommendation on whether to take the case. The justices then make a final decision. If they decide to hear a case, they will issue a "writ of certiorari."

Factors the Court Considers When Choosing Cases

Every year, the Supreme Court receives about 10,000 petitions for certiorari, but only hears about 80 of them. While no one really knows why some cases get heard but others do not, the Supreme Court has several factors that it considers when deciding what cases to hear:

  1. 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 a number of these courts reach different conclusions about an issue of federal or constitutional law, the Supreme Court may step in and decide the law so that all areas of the country can then operate under the same law.
  2. The Court will Hear Cases that are Important: Sometimes the Court will consider a highly unusual case such as U.S. v Nixon (concerning the Watergate tapes) or Bush v. Gore (concerning the extremely close election in 2000), or a case with an important social issue, such as abortion in Roe v. Wade.
  3. The Court will Sometimes Hear Cases that Speak to the Justices' Interests: Sometimes Justices give preference to cases that decide an issue in their favorite area of law.
  4. 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, or alternatively, simply overrule the case without comment.
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