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What is the process by which the Supreme Court considers cases?

The process by which the Supreme Court considers cases is initiated by the filing of a petition known as a “writ of certiorari” by a litigant asking the Court to hear an appeal. The Supreme Court is not required to hear appeals. Writs of certiorari are granted based upon “The Rule of Four,” which necessitates the agreement of four of the nine justices before the appeal will be heard.

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While the federal and state court systems in the United States have similar structures, the appellate processes are quite different. Each state has its own court system. This generally consists of a trial level, an intermediate appellate level, and the highest appellate court of the state, most often called the state Supreme Court, not to be confused with the United States Supreme Court. On the state level, lawsuits are heard in the trial courts. If a party wishes to appeal, the case is moved to the intermediate appellate level for review. Should there be a further appeal, the case is moved to the state’s highest appellate court. This is the court of last resort at the state level since appeals from there are very limited.

On the federal level, the trial courts are called federal district courts. These courts have jurisdiction in cases with federal questions arising out of the Constitution or cases involving diversity of citizenship, where the parties reside in different states. If a case is appealed, the matter is moved to a circuit court of appeals. This is the court of last resort at the federal level since appeals from there are also very limited.

The United States Supreme Court is the highest court in the nation and sits above both the state and federal court systems. With respect to the US Supreme Court, which was established under Article III, Section 1 of the Constitution, cases are not heard automatically upon an appeal. There is a special process to be followed before the Court considers a case.

Once a circuit court or state supreme court has ruled on a case, the matter is completed. However, either party may choose to appeal to the US Supreme Court. If the appeal is from a state supreme court, there also must be a federal question at issue, just like cases started in the federal court system. Unlike lower-level appellate courts, the US Supreme Court is usually not required to hear the appeal. In order to appeal a case to the US Supreme Court, a party must file a petition known as a writ of certiorari, asking it to hear the case. The US Supreme Court follows what is known as “The Rule of Four.” This means that the Court will not hear a case unless four of the nine justices agree to take the appeal. If they do, the writ will be granted and the Court will hear the case. In the United States, less than 1% of the requests pursuant to writs of certiorari are granted. In a typical year, the Court hears only approximately 100 cases on appeal.

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