Certiorari in the United States


A writ or order to a lower court, whose decision is being challenged, to send up the records of the case so a higher court can review the lower court’s decision. Certiorari means “to be informed,” and may be granted to the losing party by the Supreme Court. Until 1891 the Court was formally obliged to take all appeals that came through the federal court system or that concerned a federal question and were appealed from the highest state court. In 1890 the Court had to deal with more than 18,000 cases, a nearly impossible task. The problem of an overcrowded docket was addressed in the Everts Act of 1891 when Congress created three-judge circuit courts of appeal to function as intermediate courts between the federal district courts and the Supreme Court. The act restricted the means of appeal to the Supreme Court by introducing discretionary certiorari power. Through certiorari the Court could decline to hear certain cases if a given number of justices felt they were not sufficiently important. Denial of a certiorari petition meant the decision of the federal circuit court or state supreme court was upheld. Despite the Everts Act, the Court’s workload continued to expand, however. This was occasioned by major population increases, a more extensive governmental administrative apparatus, and the widespread use of the writ of error by which cases came to the Court by the losing party’s assertion of legal error committed by a court below. The Judiciary (Apellate Judicial Process) Act of 1925 largely did away with the writ of error and gave the Court even wider discretion in broad classes of cases by reaffirming the writ of certiorari. The writ is granted when at least four of the nine members of the U.S. Supreme Court agree that a particular case should be reviewed. In the years following the Judiciary (Apellate Judicial Process) Act, the proportion of certiorari petitions granted by the Court has never exceeded 22 percent. More often, the Court grants certiorari in fewer than ten percent of the cases seeking it. Certiorari is one of four ways by which cases may be reviewed by the Supreme Court. The others are appeal, the extraordinary writ, and certification. Certification is a process through which a lower court requests a higher court to resolve certain issues in a case while the case is still pending in the lower court.

See Also

Certification (Apellate Judicial Process) Discretionary Jurisdiction (Apellate Judicial Process) Screening Criteria (Apellate Judicial Process).

Analysis and Relevance

The certiorari power is the Supreme Court’s principal means of keeping current with its docket. It can also be an effective administrative tool. When Charles Evans Hughes became chief justice in 1930, he read and summarized all certiorari petitions coming to the Court. He weeded out some of the easily disposable cases and put them on a separate list before conferences. In conference Chief Justice Hughes attempted to average only about three and one-half minutes for discussion of each certiorari petition. Since his preparation far exceeded that of the other justices, his views on whether to grant petitions were seldom challenged. Thus a chief justice, as the chief administrative officer of the Court, can restrict access to the Court by his manipulation of certiorari petitions. He can also direct the Court’s attention to policy areas he thinks are important, as when Hughes expanded the Court’s scrutiny of in forma pauperis petitions to the point where habeas corpus arguments by prisoners became an important part of the Court’s docket. Chief justices continue to prepare lists of cases that may summarily be denied certiorari. The writ of certiorari extends to any civil or criminal case in the federal courts of appeal regardless of the parties, the status of the case, or the amount of money in controversy. Any state court decision that involves the construction and application of the federal Constitution, treaties, or laws, or the determination of a federal title, right, privilege, or immunity, falls within the Court’s certiorari jurisdiction. Certiorari allows the Supreme Court to enter the policy making process at virtually any point it chooses to do so. Refusal to grant certiorari leaves a case as it stands. Denial of certiorari means that the issue contained in the case is insufficiently compelling for review. It may also reflect the Court’s view that the decision of the lower court is satisfactory on the merits.

Notes and References

  1. Definition of Certiorari from the American Law Dictionary, 1991, California

Certiorari Definition

In practice. A writ issued by a superior to an inferior court of record, requiring the latter to send -in to the former some proceeding therein pending, or the records and proceedings in some cause already terminated in cases where the procedure is not according to the course of the common law. 112 Mass. 206. The office of the writs of certiorari and mandamus is often much the same. It is the practice of the United States supreme court, upon a suggestion of any defect in the transcript of the record sent up into that court upon a writ of error, to allow a special certiorari, requiring the court below to certify more fully. 3 Dall. (U.S.) 411; 7 Cranch (U.S.) 288; 3 How. (U.S.) 553. The same result might also be effected by a writ of mandamus. The two remedies are, when addressed to an inferior court of record, from a superior court, requiring the return of a record, much the same. But where diminution of the record is suggested in the inferior court, and the purpose is to obtain a more perfect record, and not inerely a more perfect copy or transcript, it is believed that the writ of mandam.us is the appropriate remedy. In many of the states, the writ produces the same result in proceedings given by statute, such as the proceedings for obtaining damages under the mill acts, highway acts, pauper laws, etc., as the writ of error does when the proceedings are according to the course of the common law. Where the lower court is to be required to proceed in a cause, a writ of procedendo or mandamus is the proper remedy.

Legal Materials

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. More Supreme Court legal materials are covered here

Certiorari in Foreign Legal Encyclopedias

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Certiorari Certiorari in the European Legal Encyclopedia.
Certiorari Certiorari in the Asian Legal Encyclopedia.
Certiorari Certiorari in the UK Legal Encyclopedia.
Certiorari Certiorari in the Australian Legal Encyclopedia.

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This definition of Certiorari Is based on the The Cyclopedic Law Dictionary . This definition needs to be proofread..

Practical Information

Note: Some of this information was last updated in 1982

(Latin) To be informed of; to be made certain in regard to. A writ issued by a superior court to an inferior court directing it to send to the former court the record of a particular case. A writ (in U.S. law) of certiorari is an extraordinary remedy resorted to in cases obviously entitled to redress where no direct appellate proceedings are provided by law. A writ of certiorari cannot be used as a substitute for an appeal or a writ of error. It is distinguished from an appeal (in U.S. law) in that it brings up the case on the record, whereas on appeal a case is brought up on the merits. A litigant is entitled to a writ of error as a matter of right, but a writ of certiorari lies within the court’s discretion. The dissatisfied party in the lower court petitions the appellate court for a writ of certiorari. If, on the face of the record, the appellate court determines that the lower court has not proceeded in accordance with the law, it will consent to issue the writ and hear the case. If the record itself does not indicate that the petitioner has been wronged by the proceeding, the court will deny the petition for a writ of certiorari. The denial is in effect, an affirmance of the lower court’s decision on the point of law before the appellate court, but the issuance of the writ does not mean that the appellate court will decide in favor of the petitioner. The court may then order the certiorari dismissed; or return it to the lower court with instructions; or render a final judgment which must finally govern the case. See also habeas corpus (in U.S. law); stay (in U.S. law): prohibition (in U.S. law); quo warrantor (in U.S. law): mandamus (in U.S. law).

(Revised by Ann De Vries)

What is Certiorari?

For a meaning of it, read Certiorari in the Legal Dictionary here. Browse and search more U.S. and international free legal definitions and legal terms related to Certiorari.

Meaning of Certiorari

In plain or simple terms, Certiorari means: See writ of certiorari.

Deciding Whether to Apply For Certiorari in the United States Supreme Court (in Disability Claims)

Some information about Deciding Whether to Apply For Certiorari in the United States Supreme Court in this context.


See Also



Further Reading (Articles)

Certiorari Review of Nonfinal Orders: Does One Size Really Fit All? Part I, Florida Bar Journal; February 1, 2012; Altenbernd, Chris W. Marcario, Jamie

The continuing story of certiorari.(Florida), Florida Bar Journal; December 1, 2009; Conigliaro, Matthew J.

U.S. Supreme Court Certiorari Granted: October 8, 2007, Lawyers USA; October 8, 2007

Conquering the maze of certiorari review of local government quasi-judicial land use decisions., Florida Bar Journal; October 1, 2004; Hunter, Gary K., Jr. Tschetter, Jennifer A.

Certiorari Review of Nonfinal Orders: Trying on a Functional Certiorari Wardrobe, Part II, Florida Bar Journal; March 1, 2012; Altenbernd, Chris W. Marcario, Jamie

U.S. Supreme Court Certiorari Granted: January 28, 2008, Lawyers USA; January 28, 2008

Congress to Consider Initiative regarding Certiorari before Judgment, Mondaq Business Briefing; November 5, 2012

Second-tier certiorari standard of review under Florida Law: a practitioner’s guide., Florida Bar Journal; February 1, 2007; Eichhorn, Cory W.

Initiating a New Constitutional Dialogue: The Increased Importance under AEDPA of Seeking Certiorari from Judgments of State Courts, William and Mary Law Review; October 1, 2008; Shay, Giovanna Lasch, Christopher

Strategic Auditing in a Political Hierarchy: An Informational Model of the Supreme Court’s Certiorari Decisions., American Political Science Review; March 1, 2000; CAMERON, CHARLES M. SEGAL, JEFFREY A. SONGER, DONALD

U.S. Supreme Court Certiorari Granted: January 29, 2007, Lawyers USA; January 29, 2007; Lawyers USA Staff

How to… Choose a tax certiorari law firm, Long Island Business News; June 22, 2007; Bernadette Starzee

Certiorari, Writ of, Encyclopedia of the American Constitution; January 1, 2000

Should the narrowing scope of second-tier certiorari mandate findings of fact in local government quasi-judicial decisions?(Florida), Florida Bar Journal; July 1, 2002; Coller, Craig

Review of local administrative actions by common law certiorari after Pleasures II v. City of Sarasota: what’s a local government got to do to get reviewed around here?, Florida Bar Journal; May 1, 2003; Lincoln, Robert Ansbacher, Sidney F.

Don’t Cry for Me Argentine Bondholders: Argentina and Exchange Bondholders File Certiorari Petitions, Mondaq Business Briefing; February 28, 2014; Weisburg, Henry

NIFA Pans Nassau Co. Cert Bonds: N.Y. County Seeks Certiorari Paydowns., The Bond Buyer; November 28, 2007; Phillips, Ted

U.S. Supreme Court Certiorari Granted: June 18, 2007, Lawyers USA; June 18, 2007

U.S. Supreme Court Certiorari Granted: December 18, 2006, Lawyers USA; December 18, 2006; Lawyers USA Staff

Justice for All? the Supreme Court’s Denial of Pro Se Petitions for Certiorari, Albany Law Review; December 22, 1999; Smith, Kevin H.

Meaning of Certiorari

In plain or simple terms, Certiorari means: See writ of certiorari.

Deciding Whether to Apply For Certiorari in the United States Supreme Court (in Disability Claims)

Some information about Deciding Whether to Apply For Certiorari in the United States Supreme Court in this context.


Further Reading

Certiorari (cert.) in the Context of Law Research

The Thurgood Marshall School of Law Library defined briefly Certiorari (cert.) as: A writ issued by a superior to an inferior court requiring the latter to produce the records of a particular case tried therein. It is most commonly used to refer to the Supreme Court of the United States, which uses the writ of certiorari as a discretionary device to choose the cases it wishes to hear. The term’s origin is Latin, meaning to be informed of.Legal research resources, including Certiorari (cert.), help to identify the law that governs an activity and to find materials that explain that law.

Certiorari in the context of Juvenile and Family Law

Definition ofCertiorari published by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges:A writ issued by an appellate court accepting a lowercourt decision for review. Usually used to refer to review that is not required, but granted as a matter of judicial discretion.

Certiorari: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

Federal Primary Materials

The U.S. federal government system consists of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each of which creates information that can be the subject of legal research about Certiorari. This part provides references, in relation to Certiorari, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

Federal primary materials about Certiorari by content types:

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Presidential Materials

Materials that emanate from the President’s lawmaking function include executive orders for officers in departments and agencies and proclamations for announcing ceremonial or commemorative policies. Presidential materials available include:

Executive Materials

Federal Legislative History Materials

Legislative history traces the legislative process of a particular bill (about Certiorari and other subjects) for the main purpose of determining the legislators’ intent behind the enactment of a law to explain or clarify ambiguities in the language or the perceived meaning of that law (about Certiorari or other topics), or locating the current status of a bill and monitoring its progress.

State Administrative Materials and Resources

State regulations are rules and procedures promulgated by state agencies (which may apply to Certiorari and other topics); they are a binding source of law. In addition to promulgating regulations, state administrative boards and agencies often have judicial or quasi-judicial authority and may issue administrative decisions affecting Certiorari. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about Certiorari should check state agency web sites for their regulations, decisions, forms, and other information of interest.

State rules and regulations are found in codes of regulations and administrative codes (official compilation of all rules and regulations, organized by subject matter). Search here:

State opinions of the Attorney General (official written advisory opinions on issues of state law related to Certiorari when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

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