3 minute read

Supreme Court of the United States

Jurisdiction

The Judiciary Act of 1789 gave the Supreme Court authority to hear certain appeals brought from the lower federal courts and the state courts. The Court was also given power to issue various kinds of orders, or writs, to enforce its decisions.

Article III of the Constitution declares that the Supreme Court shall have original jurisdiction "[i]n all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a state shall be a party…" Original juris diction is the authority to hear a case from the outset. Nevertheless, Congress has enacted legislation giving the district courts concurrent jurisdiction in cases dealing with ambassadors and foreign consul as well as in cases between the U.S. government and one or more state governments. The Supreme Court retains exclusive jurisdiction only in suits between state governments, which often involve boundary disputes. These cases arise infrequently and are usually placed before special masters who hear the evidence, make findings, and recommend a decision that is acceptable to the Court.

Article III states that the Supreme Court's appellate jurisdiction extends to all federal cases "with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make." Appellate cases coming to the Court from the lower federal courts usually come from the 13 courts of appeals, although they may come from the Court of Military Appeals or, under special circumstances, directly from the district courts. Appellate cases may also come from the state courts of last resort, usually a state's supreme court.

Until 1891 losing parties in the lower federal courts and state courts of last resort had the right to appeal their cases to the Supreme Court. The Court's docket was crowded with appeals, many of which raised routine or frivolous claims. In 1891 Congress created nine courts of appeals to correct errors in routine cases. (28

The official seal of the U.S. Supreme Court.
COLLECTION OF THE CURATOR OF U.S. SUPREME COURT

U.S.C.A. ch. 3). This reduced the Supreme Court's caseload, but parties often retained statutory rights to have their cases reviewed by the Court.

In 1925 Congress reformed, at the Court's insistence, the Supreme Court's appellate jurisdiction by restricting the categories of cases in which litigants were afforded an appeal by right to the Supreme Court. In addition, the JUDICIARY ACT of 1925, 43 Stat. 936, gave the Court the power to issue writs of certiorari to review all cases, federal or state, posing "federal questions of substance." The writ of certiorari gives the Court discretionary review, allowing it to address some issues and ignore others. Because of these reforms, the courts of appeals are the final decision-making courts in 98 percent of federal cases.

In 1988 Congress passed the Act to Improve the Administration of Justice, 102 Stat. 663. This law eliminated most appeals by right to the Supreme Court, requiring the Court to hear appeals only in cases involving federal CIVIL RIGHTS laws, legislative reapportionment, federal antitrust actions, and a few other matters. As a result of this growth in discretionary jurisdiction, the Supreme Court has the ability to set its own agenda.

A party who seeks review of a decision petitions the Court for a writ of certiorari, an ancient PLEADING form that grants the right for review. The justices deliberate in private on whether the issues presented by the case are significant enough to merit review. They operate under an informal rule of four, which means that certiorari will be granted if any four justices favor it. If certiorari is granted, the justices can decide the case on the papers submitted or schedule a full argument before the Court. If certiorari is denied, the matter ends there. With discretionary review, the justices have complete freedom in deciding whether to hear the case, and no one may question or appeal their decision.

The Supreme Court also has special jurisdiction to answer certified questions sent to it from a federal court of appeals or from the U.S. Claims Court. The Supreme Court can either give instructions that the lower court is bound to follow or require the court to provide the record so that the Supreme Court can decide the entire lawsuit. Certification is rarely used.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Strategic Health Authorities (SHAs) to Taking a conveyance without consent (TWOC)Supreme Court of the United States - Composition, Court Term, Administration Of The Court, Jurisdiction, Decisions, Further Readings - Rule Making