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How Does a Case Get "All the Way" to the United States Supreme Court?

Most anyone can tell you that it is possible to appeal a case to the United States Supreme Court, but few understand what is involved in getting a case before the Court. This article will explain the steps in the process so that any reader will have a clearer understanding of what is involved, the process, and the likelihood of getting the U.S. Supreme Court to hear a case.

To understand how a case is brought before the United States Supreme Court, it is important to understand the entire court process. It begins in the trial courts. There are trial courts in every state and on the federal level as well. When any cases, civil or criminal, is completed on the trial court level, there is an opportunity to appeal the case. (When a case is determined to be "complete" could be discussed at great length, but, for now, consider completion as being the lack of any issue left for the trial court to decide. In a civil case, a judgment has been rendered and a hearing seeking to have it reconsidered accomplished. In a criminal case, a sentence has been imposed, and a hearing seeking to have it reconsidered accomplished. In other words, there is nothing left for the trial court to rule on or decide.) Appeals in and of themselves can be complex, and are full of pitfalls and problems.

That said, on the state level, after the appellate court has ruled, the party that lost on appeal can seek to have the state's Supreme Court hear the case. If the state's supreme court refuses to hear the case or hears the case, the party that was denied hearing or lost before that supreme court can then seek to have the U.S. Supreme Court hear the case. On the federal level, once the trial court stage is complete, an appeal can be taken to a Federal Appeals Court, after which the party who lost on appeal can seek to have the U.S. Supreme Court hear the case.

Just as with the trial court level, there must be nothing left for the appellate court to do. This is important to note, because it is possible for the appellate court to refer a case back to the trial court to follow-up on the case in one way or another. For example, an appellate court could rule that the trial court needed to do something before the appellate court can proceed further. In this instance, the case would go back to the trial court to do that which it needed to do, after which the case would go back on appeal, likely starting from scratch.

Any reader will notice that in the appeals process discussed above, seeking is the operative word in order to have a state supreme court or the U.S. Supreme Court was discussed. The reason is simple: in the overwhelming number of instances, there is no automatic appeal of a case to which someone is entitled. Persons have an automatic right to appeal a trial court ruling, but getting review of an appellate court ruling is something that one has to seek out.

Different states will call it different things, but the process of seeking review will generally be fairly uniform. As far as the U.S. Supreme Court is concerned, the way in which a party asks the Supreme Court to hear a case is by means of what is called a "Petition for Certiorari." A Petition for Certiorari can be rejected or granted. If it is granted, then the U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case, after which briefs will need to be filed and oral argument could be held. If a Petition for Certiorari is rejected, then the ruling of the last appellate court to hear the case stands.

It may be of interest to note the odds of getting a case before the United States Supreme Court. Statistically speaking, it is asked to hear thousands of cases per year, and only accepts about 2% of them. This translates into the Court hearing between 100 to 150 cases a year.

Copyright © 2017 by Brendan Bukalski

The information provided in this column is general in nature, and should not be relied upon as legal advice or interpreted as creating an attorney-client relationship . As a general rule, all specific legal problems should be handled by an individual's attorney. All rights reserved. Any copying, duplication, or commercial use of the information contained in this column is strictly prohibited without prior permission.