How a Case Gets to the United States Supreme Court

The Supreme Court of the United States is often referred to as the “Court of Last Resort,” because it is the highest court in the United States; there is no court with higher authority. Also, except for specific limited case types specifically listed in Article III of the Constitution, all cases that reach the Supreme Court have been heard and are on appeal from the decisions of lower courts across the nation.

Once a case works its way through the lower courts, a party may petition to have their case heard by the Supreme Court. However, the Supreme Court of the United States has great latitude in which cases it will hear. The Supreme Court receives thousands of requests to hear cases, which are called petitions for certiorari. Of these many requests, the Justices will agree to hear only a handful, generally less than 100, cases per term. The Supreme Court’s term begins the first Monday of October and ends the first Monday of October the following year. In 2010, the Supreme Court term begins on October 4th.  In order for a case to be heard before the Supreme Court, four of the nine Justices of the court must agree to hear the case.

If certiorari is granted, the time frame for the parties involved in the case is set. The petitioner (the party that has requested the Court review the case), has 45 days to file their “brief on the merits”, which lays out their arguments to the court. The respondents (the other party) then has 30 days to respond. Amicus (friend of the court) brief filing deadlines are a few days after the deadline for the side that they support.  These times are set by the rules of the Court, and may only be extended with the permission of the Court.

The next step for the case will be oral arguments before the Supreme Court. The case will be placed on the Court’s calender for some time in the Fall or the Spring. And when the day comes, one attorney for each side will stand before the Justices for their oral argument and will present their case to the Justices. The attorneys will have only a set time (generally 30 minutes apiece) to plead their case before the Court. However, any Justice may interrupt at any point to ask questions or debate a point with the attorney; so the attorney must think quickly on their feet, and know the law and their case inside and out. So even though an attorney has 30 minutes to plead their side of the case, Justices’ questions and attorneys’ answers can go on for much longer.

After oral arguments, the Court will deliberate on the matter, and will release a written opinion at some point before the term in which the case was argued ends. Opinions are generally released on Thursdays, but it is not known when the opinion for a specific case will be released. Once the opinion is released, it will represent the law of the land, and creates precedence that will shape future laws and court decisions that are binding throughout the United States of America.