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The United States Supreme Court is the ultimate court of last resort. While the cases heard by lower level trial courts and appellate courts can be appealed to state supreme courts and federal appellate courts, no other court looks over the shoulder of the U.S. Supreme Court. The opinions issued by the nine justices on this court are final.
Every year the U.S. Supreme Court receives thousands of requests to have the high court hear specific cases. Experts estimate that roughly 5000 requests are made annually. These requests, called petitions for writs of certiorari, are essentially pleas stating, "please hear my case." Each justice on the U.S. Supreme Court has a number of skilled law clerks working for him or her and these clerks review every petition for writ of certiorari and submit a "cert memo" regarding the writs they review to the justice they are assigned. The judges review the memos and hold a conference to determine which of these cases should go on the court's docket.
The "Rule of Four" controls matters when deciding which issues the high court will hear. If four justices agree that a specific petition for writ of certiorari should be granted, then the case will be placed on the Court's docket and an order stating that certiorari has been granted will be issued to the petitioner.
Typically, the justices grant certiorari, or "cert" as it is commonly called, to cases which may have far-reaching, interesting issues. The court may wish to hear a case and issue its opinion so that it can offer guidance to the lower level judges throughout the country who have the same issues come through their courtrooms on a daily basis. Cert is also often granted when there is a conflict among a number of lower level trial or appellate courts in interpreting a rule of law or a prior judicial decision. In such cases, the Supreme Court will issue an order specifying the correct interpretation of the law to pave the way and set the legal precedent for the lower courts.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the process for a case to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court?
The U.S. Supreme Court employs a process called "certiorari," where at least four of the nine Justices must agree to grant a "writ of certiorari" for a case to be heard. This is known as the "rule of four." The Court receives approximately 7,000-8,000 petitions for certiorari each term but hears only about 80 cases, according to the United States Courts website. Cases that involve significant federal or constitutional issues, resolve splits in lower court decisions, or have national significance are more likely to be selected.
How does the Supreme Court decide if a case has national significance?
The Supreme Court looks for cases that have far-reaching implications beyond the interests of the parties involved. This includes matters that affect the general public, have caused divided opinions in lower courts, or could lead to changes in federal law or constitutional interpretation. The Justices consider the potential impact of a decision on the country as a whole, ensuring that their docket reflects issues of profound importance to society.
Can the Supreme Court refuse to hear a case?
Yes, the Supreme Court can and often does refuse to hear cases. The Court has complete discretion over its docket, and if a case does not meet the criteria for certiorari or if fewer than four Justices vote to hear it, the petition is denied. When this happens, the lower court's decision stands as the final ruling. The Supreme Court typically denies certiorari to the vast majority of cases submitted for review.
What is a "split" in lower court decisions, and why does it matter to the Supreme Court?
A "split" in lower court decisions occurs when federal appellate courts, known as circuit courts, or state supreme courts have ruled differently on the same legal issue. These discrepancies can create uncertainty and uneven application of the law across different jurisdictions. The Supreme Court often takes cases to resolve these splits to ensure a uniform interpretation of the law nationwide, which is essential for maintaining legal consistency and fairness.
Does public interest or opinion influence the Supreme Court's decision to hear a case?
While the Supreme Court is insulated from public opinion by design, cases that garner significant public interest may indirectly influence the Court's decision to grant certiorari if they raise legal questions that have become particularly pressing or topical. However, the Justices are primarily guided by legal principles and the merits of the case rather than public sentiment. Their focus is on the importance of the legal issues presented and their implications for the law and the Constitution.