How Does a Case Reach the Supreme Court?

A picture of the supreme court building

The United States Supreme Court is the highest court in the land, ruling on some of the most controversial and pivotal cases our nation will come across. But what exactly causes a case to be heard before the Supreme Court, and why are some cases chosen over others? 

Let’s go over the nuances of different types of court cases, including cases heard at the lower level courts, appellate courts, the state supreme court, and of course, the U.S. Supreme Court. Read on to learn more about how a case reaches the Supreme Court​​. 

What Cases Are Heard at the Supreme Court Level?

Typically, the Supreme Court will hear court cases pertaining to the implementation and interpretation of the U.S. Constitution and federal law. Some of the more recent cases heard by the Supreme Court included the following legal issues: 

  • Freedom of religion in public schools
  • Freedom of religion in private businesses 
  • Discrimination
  • Issues related to law enforcement
  • Medical topics, including abortion

Original Jurisdiction 

So, how does a case get to the Supreme Court? Original jurisdiction is one way in which a case can head to the high court. This path is outlined by Article III, Section 2, Clause 2 of the US Constitution. Cases that are heard in this manner have originated at the Supreme Court level. 

Advancing through the Appellate Court

The more common way a case may reach the Supreme Court is through the lower appellate courts. These cases originate in the lower courts and work their way up the court system through appeals.

Unlike the cases that are heard at the Supreme Court level, cases that are heard in the lower court usually involve civil cases like medical malpractice, automotive accidents, and other personal injury cases. 

legal appeal is when the outcome of a party’s case is not satisfactory to that party. In that case, the litigant pushes to have their case heard in front of an appellate court. The appellate court consists of a panel of three judges who look over the case and come to an agreement. Typically the appellate court’s ruling is final. 

In some cases, the appeals court may send the case back to trial for additional proceedings, or litigants may petition to be heard by the Supreme Court. As the case moves through the lower courts, it may eventually find its way to the Supreme Court if there is continued disagreement in the case. While this is the more common way cases are heard at the Supreme Court level, this path is often lengthy, lasting several years.

Navigating the Court of Appeals 

The appellate court or court of appeals is where cases are sent to be reheard following the initial trial. There are 94 federal judicial districts spread across 12 regional circuits, each of which has its own court of appeals. When a case reaches the court of appeals, the court decides whether the lower court’s ruling was appropriate in applying the law. 

When a case is taken to the court of appeals, the ruling that is made at the appellate courts is typically final. However, in some cases, the appellate court may send the case back to trial for additional review. When a case is heard at the Appellate Court, it is brought before a panel of three judges who go over the case through briefs provided by both parties. There are no juries used at the appellate court. 

Once a verdict is issued by the appellate court, parties can still appeal this decision by asking the Supreme Court to grant a writ of certiorari. 

Writ of Certiorari

When a party petitions the Supreme Court of the United States to hear a case, this is done through a writ of certiorari. A writ of certiorari is a request made by the Supreme Court to the lower courts to have case records be sent for review. When petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to hear a case, a party will need to ask the Supreme Court members to grant a writ of certiorari. 

When a party files a petition for a writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court, at least four justices need to agree to hear the case for the writ of certiorari to be granted. 

Even still, not all cases that are heard at the lower courts will be heard at the Supreme Court. The U.S. Constitution and Supreme Court procedures detail which case can be brought before the higher court. Very few cases that are petitioned to be heard by the Supreme Court are ever heard by the Supreme Court. On average, the Supreme Court hears roughly 75-85 cases a year. 

Appeals from State Supreme Courts

While appellate courts are divided up through regional circuits, every state has one state supreme court that operates as the high court of the state. These state courts have the authority to rule on cases that pertain to state law. If a case requires the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution or federal law, however, that case can be sent to the U.S. Supreme Court from the state supreme court. 

How Many Cases Does the Supreme Court Hear? 

Over the past decades, the number of cases being petitioned to the U.S. Supreme Court has climbed significantly. However, because there is only one Supreme Court and only nine Supreme Court justices to hear cases, the number of cases heard remains relatively the same. According to the latest data, the Supreme Court receives roughly 10,000 petitions a year. However, only a fraction of these petitions will be granted with anywhere from 75 to 85 of these cases being heard. 

See The Guidance of an Experienced Attorney 

Whether you’re navigating a lawsuit following a personal injury, automotive accident, or medical malpractice case, our team is here for you. Understanding the U.S. legal system can be a complicated and overwhelming process. This is why it’s important to have a dedicated and experienced legal team by your side. The attorneys at the law offices of Jack Bernstein are committed to getting you the results you deserve.

To learn more about your legal options contact us today for a free consultation on your case.

Article III, Section 2, Clause 2.

Legal appeal.
U.S. Constitution and Supreme Court procedures. (2022).

2% of the court cases petitioned to the Supreme Court. (2022).

Supreme Court Cases. (2022).