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How does the Supreme Court Decide Which Cases to Hear?

The Supreme Court wields the power of judicial review, selecting cases that present significant legal questions or resolve conflicting lower court decisions. Their choices shape the nation's laws and uphold the Constitution's integrity. Each petition is meticulously weighed, ensuring the Court's docket reflects issues of profound national importance. What factors influence these pivotal decisions? Join us as we explore the Court's discerning process.
D Frank
D Frank

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 Supreme Court hears cases in Washington, D.C.
The Supreme Court hears cases in Washington, D.C.

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?

A writ of certiorari seeks Supreme Court review and decision in a case that has exhausted its appeals and is otherwise at the end of the line.
A writ of certiorari seeks Supreme Court review and decision in a case that has exhausted its appeals and is otherwise at the end of the line.

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?

Experts estimate that the Supreme Court receives 5,000 requests annually to hear cases decided earlier in lower courts.
Experts estimate that the Supreme Court receives 5,000 requests annually to hear cases decided earlier in lower courts.

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?

An individual who has lost her case at the state level may appeal to have her case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.
An individual who has lost her case at the state level may appeal to have her case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

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.

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Discussion Comments

anon1004890

William Rehnquist was one of the more intelligent Supreme Court justices. He applied the constitution as it was written in most cases. None of them do in all cases! They are all afraid of congressional changes to pack the court so in some cases they do as instructed by congress or the president, i.e. John Roberts. Personally I think they have pictures or video on Roberts as he routinely rules as the left tells him.

anon327553

@anon21534: It's all in the way you write your questions, which can only be one to three sentences long for each question. It either lies in the hands of a liberal clerk or conservative clerk. They decide based on questions written which cases to select for the justices to hear or not. Look up us supreme court IFP Questions page and acceptance of write of ceritori.

bluedolphin
@feruze-- I know that the Supreme Court doesn't hear a case that can be decided at lower level courts. They're not going to waste their time on those cases.

They also don't hear cases if the one filing the case is not the one who has been injured legally.

Generally, the Supreme Court doesn't hear cases unless it absolutely has to. Because once the Supremes give a decision about something, that issue is completely taken out of the political arena. So it won't be discussed anymore. Supremes try to avoid this if possible.

donasmrs
@anon257866-- It really depends on the case. Sometimes, the Supreme Court thinks about a case for a while before they decide to take it up. This might be to gather more facts or just think about it in general.

In other cases, they will take up a case much more quickly, especially if it's an issue that only the Supreme Court can decide. Many of these cases are about the constitutionality of something. Only the US Supreme Court can interpret and decide if something is constitutional. So only the Supreme Court has jurisdiction for those cases.

bear78
But are there any specific types of cases that the Supreme Court doesn't hear?

I have homework on this, please help.

anon302513

To answer the questions here: The Supreme Court takes quite a while to issue a response one way or the other. Usually you lose unless you can prove factual or procedural errors by the lower courts.

anon257866

How long does it usually take the Supreme Court to decide on which cases they are going to hear? We are working on this in my law class and I haven't been able to find anything on it or anything useful about the Supreme Court.

anon237750

When the Supreme Court hears a case about a federal law before it becomes effective, is that law placed "hold" until the Supreme Court rules on the case?

anon134156

how is a justice chosen to rule on a particular case?

anon130090

This is why we must always demand that a jury of peers hears the matter and not some perverted corrupt, self opinionated judge who is protecting the system and powers that be. A jury of peers will be able to see from the people's prospective

anon115798

Let's face it, folks. Many cases are decided on a particular judge's whim and how he sees it. It may be no more right or wrong than how a previous lower court judge saw it. But then, someone has to make the final decision.

One ruling that makes no sense at all is how a defendant can be charged with multiple homicide when killing a pregnant woman. Yet this same woman can have an abortion, killing the baby, and that's legal. Common sense says something is wrong here. Talk about having it both ways.

anon86280

who is william rehnquist?

anon85000

what is the supreme court? please help.

anon83616

Is there a process to go through when the supreme court is going to hear a case?

anon21534

This was on a question on one of my worksheets about a supreme court case. How long does the Supreme Court case last and what does the case have to have to be heard?

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    • The Supreme Court hears cases in Washington, D.C.
      By: James H. Pickerell
      The Supreme Court hears cases in Washington, D.C.
    • A writ of certiorari seeks Supreme Court review and decision in a case that has exhausted its appeals and is otherwise at the end of the line.
      By: samhsloan@gmail.com
      A writ of certiorari seeks Supreme Court review and decision in a case that has exhausted its appeals and is otherwise at the end of the line.
    • Experts estimate that the Supreme Court receives 5,000 requests annually to hear cases decided earlier in lower courts.
      By: Gary Blakeley
      Experts estimate that the Supreme Court receives 5,000 requests annually to hear cases decided earlier in lower courts.
    • An individual who has lost her case at the state level may appeal to have her case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.
      By: James Steidl
      An individual who has lost her case at the state level may appeal to have her case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.