Anatomy of a Supreme Court Case

Which cases are eligible to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court?

In most cases, the Supreme Court hears cases that are being appealed after a lower court decision.  In other words, one party in the case does not agree with the decision of a lower court and wishes to have their complaint heard by our highest court.  Article III of the Constitution grants the Supreme Court this authority.  Several legal methods exist to bring a case before the Supreme Court:

1) By petition for a writ of certiorari, filed by one party after the U.S. Court of Appeals has ruled.

2) By petition for “certiorari before judgment”, which allows the Supreme Court to accept the case even before an Appeals court has ruled.

3) By petition for writ of certiorari, after a case has reached the highest level of a state court system and a federal law is in question.

4) Original jurisdiction- rarely, the U.S. Supreme Court may hear cases that have not been considered by any lower courts.  This is termed original jurisdiction and it most commonly applies to disagreements between the states.

Of all eligible cases, how does the Court decide which to accept?

Each year, the Court receives more than 10,000 petitions for certiorari, but grants only about 100 for review and oral argument.  Ninety-nine percent of the petitions received are rejected.  Organizing this massive list is the work of each Justice’s law clerks, who read and summarize every petition.  They make recommendations to the Justices as to whether or not the case should be heard.  If four Justices vote in favor of granting the petition, then the case will be heard and it is placed in the Court calendar.

What are the parts of a U.S. Supreme Court case?

First, all parties in the case submit legal briefs, which are written documents that outline their argument.  The briefs are intended to provide the Justices with the background information they need, and to persuade them that one side has a stronger case.

Second, most cases will also involve a hearing, or oral argument, during which each side is given thirty minutes to speak in front of the nine Justices.  During oral argument, the Justices will often ask numerous, challenging questions of the attorneys on both sides.

When is the case decided?

Within a week, a conference is held to discuss the most recent cases.  Only the Justices are present during this meeting.  A preliminary vote is taken.  The most senior Justice voting in the majority then chooses who will write the opinion.  An opinion is a formal statement by the Court which provides a detailed explanation as to how the Court reached its conclusion.  A draft of the opinion is circulated to the other Justices.  Some changes may be suggested.  Occasionally, depending upon how persuasive or unpersuasive the opinion may be, the final vote can change.  Those Justices who are in the minority can elect to summarize their thoughts in a dissenting opinion.  Sometimes, a Justice votes with the majority, but doesn’t agree with a significant part of the majority opinion, and therefore elects to write an additional opinion called a concurring opinion.

Nine Justices are present for most cases.  Occasionally, however, a Justice has a specific conflict of interest with a particular case and voluntarily removes themselves from the decision.  This is called a recusal.  Also, if a Justice retires, the nomination process often takes many months, leaving the Court with an empty seat.  In these circumstances, when only eight or fewer Justices vote, ties can occur.  If a tie does occur, the case is sent back to the lower court and the previous lower court verdict is allowed to stand.

When are the opinions announced?

While opinions can be announced at anytime throughout the term, most opinions are announced in May or June.  After the announcement, the opinion is published in the United States Reports, which is the official record of all U.S. Supreme Court rulings.  In recent years, the opinions are also posted on the U.S. Supreme Court website.

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