At the apex of the judicial hierarchy, the Supreme Court stands as the ultimate arbiter of justice in the United States. But what types of cases are deemed worthy of this stage? In this blog, we explore the pivotal issues that shape our legal landscape and define the nation’s constitutional fabric.
The Role of the Supreme Court
Rooted in Article III of the United States Constitution, the United States Supreme Court plays a vital role in our system of government. The reasons for this are several-fold:
- First, as the highest court in the land, it is the court of last resort for litigants.
- Second, due to its power of judicial review, the Supreme Court plays an essential role in defining the limits of power for each branch of the government – legislative, executive, and judiciary – and is vested with the crucial task, as Justice John Marshall famously once said, of “saying what the law is.”
- Third, the Supreme Court protects civil rights and liberties by interpreting and sometimes overruling laws that violate the Constitution.
How Many Cases A Year Does the Supreme Court Hear?
You may have heard the expression before, “Take it all the way to the Supreme Court.” That simple phrase reveals some essential truths about a case’s journey on the way to the Supreme Court. To get to the Supreme Court, the case has traveled a long road; now, it has reached its final destination.
In fact, the vast majority of legal cases and controversies never make it to the Supreme Court. A survey of filed petitions showed that between 2010 and 2020, the Supreme Court received approximately 10,000 petitions but heard less than 10% of those cases, about 80 cases per year.
Criteria for Supreme Court Cases
Although it is only known in the hearts of the Supreme Court’s nine presidentially-appointed justices what the true motivations are for hearing or denying cases, the cases which are heard by the Supreme Court tend to share some similar characteristics. Broadly speaking, these traits can be said to fall into the two broad categories of important legal questions and issues of national significance. More specifically, the types of Supreme Court cases include:
The Supreme Court hears cases that answer important Constitutional questions, like the balance of power between the federal government, state governments, and individual rights and freedoms. The court is periodically called upon to interpret the U.S. Constitution and how it affects people’s rights as well as the nation as a whole, such as the right to free speech, the right to bear arms, the conduct of elections, and the environment.
Federal Law Cases
The Supreme Court has what is called “original jurisdiction” over appeals of cases and controversies that arise under the U.S. Constitution, laws enacted by Congress, cases related to federal admiralty law, cases involving treaties, and cases where the United States itself is a named party.
Cases Involving States
When two states are engaged in a lawsuit against each other, for example, when Vermont and New York famously shared a river and fought over its pollution levels, the Supreme Court is often called in to resolve the conflict.
Civil Rights and Liberties Cases
The Supreme Court hears cases where civil rights and liberties are at issue, particularly under the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights, which cements individual Americans’ freedoms like the right to vote, right to believe in any religion, right to assemble, right to be free of unlawful search and seizure, right to a fair trial, and other important rights. In recent years and even months, the Supreme Court has rendered major decisions in the civil rights arena on such topics as affirmative action, abortion, gender identity, and expression.
At the highest level of the appellate process, criminal cases sometimes find their way to the Supreme Court, particularly where Constitutional rights are intertwined with a criminal investigation, prosecution, or conviction.
The Supreme Court has ruled on issues of search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment, the necessity of police reading Miranda rights to arrested persons under the Fifth Amendment and the rights to a speedy trial and impartial jury under the Sixth Amendment. Cruel and unusual punishment of prisoners who are convicted of crimes is contained in the Eighth Amendment, which cases also may come before the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court has also been known to hear cases that are highly unusual, such as U.S. v. Nixon concerning the Watergate scandal or Bush v. Gore concerning the contested presidential election of 2000, as well as cases where lower courts completely disregard the Supreme Court’s precedent known as “stare decisis,” and also, cases in which one or several of the justices have a personal interest.
How Do Cases Get to the Supreme Court?
Assuming a case is capable of being heard by the Supreme Court, the first step, in most cases, is for the case to be filed at the state or federal trial court level. The trial judge will review the evidence, listen to the plaintiff and defense or prosecution and defense as the case may be, and then render their decision. Once a final judicial decision is rendered, the affected party is then permitted to appeal the case to the next highest court, which in the state system will be either an appellate court or a state supreme court (depending on the state) and, in the federal court, will be one of the thirteen appellate district courts. When the litigant has taken their case as far as they can, they can consider appealing to the Supreme Court.
The litigant’s next step is to prepare a “petition for certiorari.” This is the document the Supreme Court will read in order to decide whether or not to hear a case. The petition has certain requirements, including procedural history, essential facts, legal issues being presented, and the question for the Supreme Court to answer in their ultimately drafted opinions. The adversary will also have a chance to present their opposition; this is called briefing. On certain major issues, outside parties may weigh in with “amicus” briefs, meaning briefs from “friends of the courts” with insight on a particular legal issue.
The entire petition file will then go to a pool of Supreme Court clerks, who are often recent law school graduates, and they will review all of the documents, summarize them for the justices, and include their recommendation on whether to take the case. The justices then make a final decision, and for this, four of nine justices must agree to “grant cert,” or more formally, to issue a “writ of certiorari.” If less than four justices wish to take up the case, certiorari is denied.
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