The U.S. Supreme Court has shaped the way Americans live their lives in a number of ways, including everything from child labor laws to discrimination and interstate commerce. The Supreme Court is, at its core, fundamentally different from any state or federal court—particularly when it comes to what cases it can and cannot hear.
Out of the 10,000 petitions presented to the Supreme Court every year, only 80 cases are tried. Here’s a look at how the U.S. Supreme Court decides whether or not to try a case:
The Selection Procedure
First of all, the Supreme Court can only hear cases that involve federal laws or otherwise fall within the federal court jurisdiction. Federal courts have jurisdiction in cases where:
- The United States is a party in the case
- The case involves a violation of the U.S. Constitution
- The case involves a violation of federal laws
- The case involves citizens of different states and the amount in questions exceeds $75,000
- The case involves bankruptcy, copyright, patent, or maritime law
If one of these circumstances does not exist and the case does not address a federal law, it is unlikely that the Supreme Court will hear it. An issue of state law or case that deals with parties in one single state will typically not rise to the level of the Supreme Court.
Unlike other courts, a case cannot originate in the Supreme Court. In other words, you cannot file a case and start right at the top. Rather, the case must work its way up through the state or federal court system, the appeals system, and then arrive at the Supreme Court. Therefore, you must first file the case in your local state or federal court. If the case is decided against you, then you can appeal the case to a higher court; once you have appealed as far as possible, you can appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Once you decide to appeal to the Supreme Court, you must prepare a “petition for certiorari,” which is essentially a request for a judgment by the court. This petition will include the facts of the case, the history of the case in lower courts, the legal issues that your unique case presents, and arguments as to why the court should accept your case. Afterward, the other party in the case will have a chance to respond to the petition, and other parties can file briefs in support of or in opposition to your petition.
Once your petition for certiorari is filed, Supreme Court clerks will review it, summarize it for the justices, and make a recommendation as to whether or not the case should be heard. At that point the justices will issue a “writ of certiorari,” meaning they decided to hear the case, or reject the case.
Factors Considered by the Court
The Supreme Court considers several factors when deciding whether or not to take a case, including:
- Conflict of law: The Supreme Court may elect to step in and make a ruling when different courts reach different conclusions about federal or constitutional law. With 13 federal circuits and 50 state supreme courts, the U.S. Supreme Court may want to step in and clarify certain legal issues so every court operates under the same law going forward.
- National importance: If a case has national significance and is important to the public as a whole, the Supreme Court may decide to take it on. The Supreme Court has discretion when it comes to taking these cases, such as Bush v. Gore after the contested 2000 election, Roe v. Wade, or US v. Nixon concerning the Watergate tapes.
- Lower courts disregarding Supreme Court decisions: If a case has arisen because lower courts are disregarding past Supreme Court decisions, the Supreme Court may decide to hear the case to correct the lower court or overrule the case without a full trial.
- Justices’ interest: In certain cases, a justice may want to hear a certain case because it addresses an issue in their personal favorite area of law.