There are three ways in which cases get to the Supreme Court of the United States. These include:
- Original jurisdiction. These cases originate in the Supreme Court rather than getting there on appeal. Very few of the Court's cases (about 5%) come in this way. These are cases such as those that involve two states in conflict with one another.
- From state courts. These cases come to the Supreme Court on appeal from state Supreme Courts. They constitute about 30% of the caseload.
- From federal courts. The rest of the cases come up through the federal courts. They start at the district court level, are appealed to the circuit courts, and are finally appealed to the Supreme Court.
Cases arrive at the Supreme Court through three distinct channels. The first route is based on the principle of "Original Jurisdiction", as established in the United States Code. In this regard, there are cases that can only be heard at the Supreme Court because the court holds exclusive jurisdiction. According to the Code,
“The Supreme Court shall have original and exclusive jurisdiction of all controversies between two or more States.”
The second route involves appeals from circuit courts, where a party petitions the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari. A writ of cert is issued on the court's discretion and requires the consent of four of the nine Justices. Once the Justices consent, the writ is successful and the case is heard at the Supreme Court. In case the writ of cert is unsuccessful, the decision by the circuit court stands.
The third course involves appeals from state supreme courts. This happens mostly with regards to constitutional issues. The Supreme Court rarely interferes on matters touching on state law especially, decisions made by state supreme courts.