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How does the Supreme Court Decide Which Cases to Hear?

By D Frank
Updated: May 17, 2024

The United States Supreme Court is the ultimate court of last resort. While the cases heard by lower level trial courts and appellate courts can be appealed to state supreme courts and federal appellate courts, no other court looks over the shoulder of the U.S. Supreme Court. The opinions issued by the nine justices on this court are final.

Every year the U.S. Supreme Court receives thousands of requests to have the high court hear specific cases. Experts estimate that roughly 5000 requests are made annually. These requests, called petitions for writs of certiorari, are essentially pleas stating, "please hear my case." Each justice on the U.S. Supreme Court has a number of skilled law clerks working for him or her and these clerks review every petition for writ of certiorari and submit a "cert memo" regarding the writs they review to the justice they are assigned. The judges review the memos and hold a conference to determine which of these cases should go on the court's docket.

The "Rule of Four" controls matters when deciding which issues the high court will hear. If four justices agree that a specific petition for writ of certiorari should be granted, then the case will be placed on the Court's docket and an order stating that certiorari has been granted will be issued to the petitioner.

Typically, the justices grant certiorari, or "cert" as it is commonly called, to cases which may have far-reaching, interesting issues. The court may wish to hear a case and issue its opinion so that it can offer guidance to the lower level judges throughout the country who have the same issues come through their courtrooms on a daily basis. Cert is also often granted when there is a conflict among a number of lower level trial or appellate courts in interpreting a rule of law or a prior judicial decision. In such cases, the Supreme Court will issue an order specifying the correct interpretation of the law to pave the way and set the legal precedent for the lower courts.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Discussion Comments
By anon1004890 — On May 11, 2021

William Rehnquist was one of the more intelligent Supreme Court justices. He applied the constitution as it was written in most cases. None of them do in all cases! They are all afraid of congressional changes to pack the court so in some cases they do as instructed by congress or the president, i.e. John Roberts. Personally I think they have pictures or video on Roberts as he routinely rules as the left tells him.

By anon327553 — On Mar 28, 2013

@anon21534: It's all in the way you write your questions, which can only be one to three sentences long for each question. It either lies in the hands of a liberal clerk or conservative clerk. They decide based on questions written which cases to select for the justices to hear or not. Look up us supreme court IFP Questions page and acceptance of write of ceritori.

By bluedolphin — On Dec 18, 2012
@feruze-- I know that the Supreme Court doesn't hear a case that can be decided at lower level courts. They're not going to waste their time on those cases.

They also don't hear cases if the one filing the case is not the one who has been injured legally.

Generally, the Supreme Court doesn't hear cases unless it absolutely has to. Because once the Supremes give a decision about something, that issue is completely taken out of the political arena. So it won't be discussed anymore. Supremes try to avoid this if possible.

By donasmrs — On Dec 17, 2012
@anon257866-- It really depends on the case. Sometimes, the Supreme Court thinks about a case for a while before they decide to take it up. This might be to gather more facts or just think about it in general.

In other cases, they will take up a case much more quickly, especially if it's an issue that only the Supreme Court can decide. Many of these cases are about the constitutionality of something. Only the US Supreme Court can interpret and decide if something is constitutional. So only the Supreme Court has jurisdiction for those cases.

By bear78 — On Dec 16, 2012
But are there any specific types of cases that the Supreme Court doesn't hear?

I have homework on this, please help.

By anon302513 — On Nov 09, 2012

To answer the questions here: The Supreme Court takes quite a while to issue a response one way or the other. Usually you lose unless you can prove factual or procedural errors by the lower courts.

By anon257866 — On Mar 29, 2012

How long does it usually take the Supreme Court to decide on which cases they are going to hear? We are working on this in my law class and I haven't been able to find anything on it or anything useful about the Supreme Court.

By anon237750 — On Dec 30, 2011

When the Supreme Court hears a case about a federal law before it becomes effective, is that law placed "hold" until the Supreme Court rules on the case?

By anon134156 — On Dec 13, 2010

how is a justice chosen to rule on a particular case?

By anon130090 — On Nov 27, 2010

This is why we must always demand that a jury of peers hears the matter and not some perverted corrupt, self opinionated judge who is protecting the system and powers that be. A jury of peers will be able to see from the people's prospective

By anon115798 — On Oct 04, 2010

Let's face it, folks. Many cases are decided on a particular judge's whim and how he sees it. It may be no more right or wrong than how a previous lower court judge saw it. But then, someone has to make the final decision.

One ruling that makes no sense at all is how a defendant can be charged with multiple homicide when killing a pregnant woman. Yet this same woman can have an abortion, killing the baby, and that's legal. Common sense says something is wrong here. Talk about having it both ways.

By anon86280 — On May 24, 2010

who is william rehnquist?

By anon85000 — On May 18, 2010

what is the supreme court? please help.

By anon83616 — On May 11, 2010

Is there a process to go through when the supreme court is going to hear a case?

By anon21534 — On Nov 17, 2008

This was on a question on one of my worksheets about a supreme court case. How long does the Supreme Court case last and what does the case have to have to be heard?

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