Supreme Court Cases

Supreme Court Cases in the United States

Supreme Court of the United States: How Cases Come Before the Court

Introduction to Supreme Court Cases

For much of the Supreme Court’s history, Congress required it to hear a large percentage of cases appealed from the lower courts. But over the years Congress eliminated parts of this mandatory jurisdiction, granting the Court more discretion to control its own calendar of cases. In 1988 Congress abolished almost all mandatory jurisdiction so that today only a tiny fraction of cases now must be heard on appeal. The Court otherwise has complete discretion to control the nature and number of the cases it reviews by means of the writ (order) of certiorari. The word certiorari comes from Latin and means “to be informed.” The writ of certiorari is an order from a higher court directing a lower court to send the record of a case for review. The Court has long considered requests for writs of certiorari according to the rule of four, which says that if four justices decide to “grant cert,” in the usual colloquial phrase, the Court will agree to hear the case. Of the 6,000 or so certiorari (cert) petitions filed each year, the Court agrees to consider no more than about 150 and sometimes fewer.

A petition for a writ of certiorari is a written document, generally filed by lawyers for the parties (though many prisoners without lawyers write their own petitions). The party wishing to have the case heard is known as the petitioner, and the side that won the case in the lower court is known as the respondent. People seeking review of mandatory appeals are known as appellants, and their opponents are appellees. In almost all cases, Supreme Court review may be sought only after the possibility of all other appeals in the lower courts has been exhausted. Some cases come to the Court because two or more lower federal courts have issued conflicting rulings on the same issue.

The justices have the right to sort through the cert petitions individually, but since the 1970s most of the justices have belonged to the cert pool. In the cert pool, the justices’ law clerks gather to sort through the petitions, and each case is assigned to a clerk who summarizes the facts, analyzes the legal issues, and makes a recommendation to the Court. This provides the justices with a quick way of deciding whether the case is certworthy-whether it should be considered further by the full Court. The chief justice maintains a discuss list, which includes all the cases he thinks are worth considering at the justices’ Friday conference. Any justice may add a case to the discuss list, but if a case is not put on the list, it is automatically refused a hearing by the Court. Relatively little time is devoted to discussing whether most of the petitions should be heard.” (1)


Lee Epstein, William M. Landes and Richard A. Posner, in their article “The Best for Last: The Timing of U.S. Supreme Court Decisions” (64 Duke L.J. 991-1022 (2015)) argue that the most important and, often, controversial and divisive cases—so called “big” cases—are disproportionately decided at the end of June. We define a “big case” in one of four ways: front-page coverage in the New York Times; front-page and other coverage in four national newspapers (the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune); the number of amicus curiae briefs filed in a case; and the number of subsequent citations by the Supreme Court to its decision in a case. We find a statistically significant association between each measure of a big case and end-of-term decisions even after controlling for the month of oral argument (cases argued later in the term are more likely to be decided near the end of the term) and case attributes (e.g., dissents and concurrences) that increase the time it takes to decide a case. We also speculate on why big cases cluster at the end of the term. One possibility is legacy and reputational concerns: when writing what they think will be a major decision, the Justices and their law clerks take more time polishing until the last minute with the hope of promoting their reputations. Another is that the end-of-term clustering of the most important cases may tend to diffuse media coverage of and other commentary regarding any particular case, and thus spare the Justices unwanted criticism just before they leave Washington for their summer recess.


Notes and References

Guide to Supreme Court Cases


U.S. Supreme Court Cases in Higher Education



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