Monday, September 18, 2006


Ways to Reach the United States Supreme Court

There are three ways that a case can reach the United States Supreme Court. The first is by original jurisdiction. The second and third are Appeal and Certiorari.

A. Original Jurisdiction

If a case has original jurisdiction in the Supreme Court, that means that the case starts there. This means that it is filed with the United States Supreme Court and nowhere else.

Most cases start out in the lower level courts and work their way up, but for a few select types of cases, these must be brought directly to the U.S. Supreme Court. Article III, Section 2 states that the Supreme Court shall have original jurisdiction in all matters “affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be a Party.” One can readily imagine that not too many cases start this way.

Remember that in the discussion below about the case of Marbury v. Madison, Marbury filed his case directly with the United States Supreme Court, even though his case did not fit into these categories, and this was his undoing.

The other way a case can come to the U.S. Supreme Court is through the process of appeals. This is called Appellate Jurisdiction. Appeal and Certiorari are the way that most cases come to the U.S. Supreme Court today. Article III, Section 2 also provides that the Supreme Court shall have “appellate jurisdiction both as to Law and Fact, with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make.”

B. Appeal v. Certiorari

There are two ways an appeal can reach the U.S. Supreme Court. The first is by direct appeal (either from federal or state courts), and the second is by the granting of a Writ of Certioriari.

1. Direct Appeal

Upon appeal, the Supreme Court must rule on the case whether the justices want to hear it or not. A case comes to the U.S. Supreme Court upon appeal from a state court if 1) a state's highest court has either a) upheld a state statute against a federal constitutional attack; or b) the state's highest court has ruled a federal law or treaty invalid.

As an example of the former: If the appellant argues his fourth amendment rights have been violated by a state statute allowing the police to enter his home without a warrant or probable cause, then the U.S. Supreme Court must hear this case if the Defendant's highest state court ruled the state law constitutional.

As an example of the latter: a plaintiff brought a suit under the federal Americans With Disabilities Act, and his state's highest court ruled the federal act invalid, then the U.S. Supreme Court must hear the case. The reason for this is that state courts are not likely to give the federal body of law the deference it requires.

If the Court does conclude that it has jurisdiction to hear the appeal, and that there is a substantial federal question involved, then the Court will enter an order in which it will “note probable jurisdiction.” The matter will then be set for submission of briefs and oral argument.

2. Certiorari

All other cases come to the U.S. Supreme Court via a Writ of Certioriari. A Writ of Certiorari is submitted to the Court by the appellant, and if four of the nine justices vote that the US Supreme Court should rule on it, then it will come before the Court. If a Writ of Certiorari doesn't get its four votes, then it is denied. While this would seem to indicate that the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed the lower court's holding, the failure to grant a Writ of Certiorari has no precedential value in other cases.

So the important things to remember from this section are 1) that the Court must dispose of an appeal, but has discretion to grant Certiorari, 2) the test for whether an issue should come to the court through appeal or writ; 3) the test for whether an appeal will get a full hearing or a summary disposition and 4) that summary dispositions upon appeal have precedential value, while dispositions of Writs of Certiorari do not.

But the lines between Appeal and Certiorari are blurring a little. While the Supreme Court must dispose of any case coming to it upon appeal, it need not hold a formal hearing. The appellant must first file a “Jurisdictional Statement” (very similar to a Writ of Certiorari) outlining for the Supreme Court its jurisdiction to hear the case and secondly why the issues are substantial.

If the Court concludes that it has the proper appellate jurisdiction to hear the case, but that the issues raised are not substantial, then the Court will summarily dispose of the case. The wording will be that the appeal was dismissed “for want of a substantial federal question.” This outcome has precedential value, but only for other cases which have virtually identical issues.

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