Supreme Court Practice

Supreme Court Practice in the United States


The supreme court is the only judicial body created by the Constitution. Article III, Section 1, specifies that fact, starting with “The judicial power of the united states, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain” and so on.

State Supreme Court

For information on state supreme courts, see state supreme courts in this legal Encyclopedia, “State Cases” or look for the entry for the state in question (e.g. “Alabama,” “Pennsylvania,” “Texas”).

United States Supreme Court Materials

There is a great deal of Supreme Court material available in print and online. Following is information on the materials which may be more usefull. The topics covered are:

  • Admission to Practice
  • Biographies of Justices
  • Briefs
  • Calendars, Schedules, Lists
  • Case Files
  • Certiorari
  • Court Rules
  • Docket Sheets
  • News
  • Opinions
  • Oral Arguments
  • Orders
  • Pending Cases
  • Questions

Note: U.S. Supreme Court Rules are discussed in the separate entry for “Federal Court Rules.”

1. Admission to Practice

Attorneys must be specially “admitted” to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court. The form to file for admission, with instructions, is posted on the Supreme Court’s Bar Admissions page.

2. Biographies of Justices

Biographies and evaluations of sitting justices are available in The Almanac of the Federal Judiciary (see the Supreme Court collection entry for info about the Almanac). Brief bios and each justice’s major opinions are listed in the Supreme Court collectionposted by Cornell’s Legal Information Institute (LII). For more information, search the judge’s name in a news (or legal news) database and/or in a good Internet search engine. See also “Judges,” especially to get bios for retired judges from the Almanac of the Federal Judiciary.

3. Briefs

U.S. Supreme Court briefs (2007-presnt) for cases granted Certiorari are posted free with related information on the SCOTUSblog (on the relevant “Case Page”). The ABA posts merits briefs for cases granted review by the Court starting with the 2003 term.

For better searching and more complete coverage, Lexis (GENFED;BRIEFS) has near-comprehensive coverage starting with the 1995-1996 term for cases were cert. was granted, plus briefs petitioning for cert. starting with the 1999-2000 term. Selected briefs are available back to August 12, 1936. Westlaw has comprehensive coverage of Merits and Amicus Briefs from 1931 to present and selected coverage from 1870 to 1930 for cases where cert was granted and oral arguments were scheduled (SCT-BRIEF-ALL).

The CIS U.S. Supreme Court Records and Briefs microfiche set goes back to 1897 for argued cases and back to 1975 for “non-argued” cases (including in forma pauperiscases) in which one or more justices wrote a dissent from the per curiam decision to deny review.” This set is available in many large academic, government and bar law association libraries. The Jenkins Law Library has briefs back to 1823.

To go back even farther, BNA’s Law Reprints publishes a microfilm/fiche set calledUnited States Supreme Court Records and Briefs with briefs back to 1832. This set is held in the Columbia Law School Library in New York City, as well as other large law libraries. You could also get copies from BNA Research & Custom Services (formerly BNA Plus). You can reach them at 703-341-3287 or

A digital library called U.S. Supreme Court Records and Briefs, 1832-1978 by Thomson/Gale is available in many large law school and government law libraries.

Briefs back to 1833 are available — in hard copy and on microfiche — in the Records & Briefs Office of the Supreme Court library in D.C.

I’ve heard that some libraries in old law firms still have old briefs in bound volumes. You could also contact the Court and/or the Library of Congress. For more information, see Where to Find Briefs of the Supreme Court of the U.S.

4. Calendars, Schedules, Lists

The Court’s calendars, schedule and hearing lists are posted on the Court’s Web site (

5. Case Files

To get copies of pleadings, orders and other documents listed on the docket sheet other than briefs, cert. petitions (discussed below) and opinions (discussed above), you have at least the following choices.

(1) For recent high profile cases, you can try Lexis (GENFED;EXTRA or STATES;EXTRA), or one of the subject-specific reporters, such as a Mealey’s Litigation Report or a Westlaw Journal (formerly Andrews Litigation Reporter).

(2) Westlaw DOCK-SCT database includes selected filings back to January, 2000.

(3) For cases at least five years old, some large law libraries get the complete case files in the U.S. Supreme Court Records and Briefs microfiche set (currently published by CIS). The set is available in many large county, bar association and academic libraries. If you don’t know of a local source, I know you can get copies of case files from the ABCNY library in New York City (212-382-6666).

(4) You can hire a document retrieval service to go to the Court and copy the files. Exception: Case files for old Federal cases are shipped off to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, DC. You can have someone drop by to make copies or arrange to have the NARA do the work for you. The NARA phone number is 202-501-5385; they are located on Pennsylvania Avenue between 7th and 9th Streets.

(5) Older cases are available through U.S. Supreme Court Records and Briefs, 1832-1978, an online database by Thomson/Gale that is available in many large academic and government libraries.

See also the “Briefs” section, above.

6. Certiorari

To see if a party has recently filed a cert. petition, or to see if the court has recently granted or denied cert., search the party’s name in the Docket section of the Court Web site and/or call the Court’s Public Information Office at 202-479-3211. For older cases, use KeyCite on Westlaw, Shepard’s on Lexis or call the Court.

To set an alert to see if a party to a case files a cert. petition with the U.S. Supreme Court, set up a KeyCite Alert on the U.S. Court of Appeals decision (or other case) that might be appealed.

The list of cases granted or denied cert, and the Court’s cert. granted statements are posted free on the Supreme Court’s Orders lists (I am told the Court does not make statements denying cert.). The statements are searchable in Westlaw’s Supreme Court database (SCT) within one hour of release. Mayer Brown’s Supreme Court Docket Reports provides summaries of cases of interest to the business community when the Supreme Court grants certiorari.

To get certiorari petitions, you can:

    1. Get the petition from from the SCOTUSblog, if the case is relatively recent (notable cases from the current docket plus merit cases 2007-present);
    2. Buy the petition from CourtExpress;
    3. Search Lexis (GENFED;BRIEFS or, for tax-related suits, FEDTAX;PETEXT), which posts selected cert. petitions about 6 weeks after filing (you might want to ask Lexis customer service to check if your petition is available before you go online);
    4. If cert has been granted recently, you may be able to get a copy by calling the Court’s Public Information Office (202-479-3211);
    5. Search Westlaw (SCT-PETITION), which ahs cert. petitions for most cert. granted cases starting in 1985, plus selected petitions back to 1960.
    6. Hire a document delivery service to pick up the petition from the Court in D.C.;
    7. KeyCite the reported opinion on Westlaw and link to the Cert. Petition;
    8. For older cases, get copies from a large county, bar association, membership or academic law libraries that gets the U.S. Supreme Court Records and Briefs microfiche set;
    9. Search Google
    10. Look up the attorney who filed the petition, call and ask him/her to send you a copy.

7. Court Rules

The Rules of the Supreme Court are posted in the Court Rules section of the Court web site. For more information, see “Federal Court Rules.”

8. Docket Sheets

You can search the court’s automated docket system for cases from the current and prior term. For more sources, see the separate entry for “Docket Sheets.” See also the “Briefs” and “Case Files” sections of this entry, above.

9. News

To find out what’s been happening at the Supreme Court, check out the SCOTUS Blog(free), The National Law Journal’s Supreme Court Brief (subscription), Bloomberg BNA’s Supreme Court Today (subscription) and/or search legal news sources (see about News  in this legal Encyclopedia).

10. Opinions

Click here for legal materials about Supreme Court opinions.

11. Oral Arguments

Videos of oral arguments are posted free by the Supreme Court and the Oyez Project, which also provides transcripts. If you can’t find what you need online, contact the court’s transcription service, Alderson Reporting (800-367-3376 or 202-289-2260).

To search the full text of transcripts, use Lexis, which has transcripts back to October 1, 1979 (GENFED;USTRAN), or Westlaw, which has transcripts back to 1990 (SCT-ORALARG). New transcripts are entered into the database about a month after the arguments.

12. Orders

The Court’s Orders from the past few years – and its Opinions Relating to Orders – are posted on the Court’s Orders and Journal page.

13. Pending Cases

The cases pending before the Supreme Court are discussed in detail in the ABA’s Supreme Court Preview newsletter.

Also see the “Questions” section, below.

14. Questions

The US Supreme Court Public Information office telephone number is 202-479-3211, which includes information on when an opinion is expected to be issued and how to get admitted to the Supreme Court bar. The Court’s main number is 202-479-3000.

See Also

Case Pulls
Docket Sheets
Federal Court Rules
Document Retrieval



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