U.S. Supreme Court Notes
- Nine justices, all nominated by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
- One is specifically named as chief justice (John Roberts), while others are associate justices.
- Primarily appellate, but trial jurisdiction exists in a few specialized types of cases.
- Three factors must be present before the U.S. Supreme Court will review a state court decision:
- A substantial federal question must be present.
Must be a real question. If the issue was a long-settled one, then no question exists.
- The federal question must be crucial to the decision.
Example: If a local obscenity ordinance is challenged and the Oklahoma Supreme Court holds that the ordinance violates both the state and U.S. constitutions, then the federal question is not crucial to the decision. The ordinance could not stand even if it's okay under the U.S. Constitution because it still violates the state constitution.
- The losing party must have exhausted all state remedies.
This involves federalism and a respect for states' autonomy. Article IV of the U.S. Constitution declares that federal constitution and federal laws are the supreme law of the land. This doctrine of national supremacy provides the basis for the U.S. Supreme Court's review of state court rulings.
Nonetheless, a fine balance must be maintained between national supremacy and the rights of states in a federal system. Therefore, the presumption is that the states are capable of rectifying their own errors and the federal judiciary should not step in too readily or easily.
- The U.S. Supreme Court has almost complete discretion to choose the cases it will hear.
- The losing side in the lower court files a petition for writ of certiorari.
A writ is a court order.
Writ of certiorari: the order the Supreme Court issues when it agrees to review a lower court decision; or a Supreme Court order agreeing to hear an appeal.
- The Supreme Court either denies or grants the petition.
- What does a denial of certiorari mean? Four of the nine justices did not agree to hear the case. It doesn't necessarily mean that the justices agreed with the lower court decision.
- Possible Reasons for Denial:
- See no flaw in lower court decision.
- No substantial legal issue.
- Court's allowed time filled.
- Waiting for set of facts to address an issue.
- Don't want side issues.
- Court agrees to hear only about 1 percent of the petitions it receives, according to a recent USA Today study.
- Here's what happens after the court agrees to hear the case:
- The Court receives the transcripts.
- Both sides file lengthy case briefs.
- Lawyers for both sides make oral arguments before the court. The justices question the lawyers, but these questions don't necessarily indicate how the justices will decide the case.
- The justices vote in closed system.
- They determine who will write the court's opinion. The chief justice writes the opinion if he is in the majority. If not, then the senior justice in the majority writes the opinion.
- Here are the types of opinions:
- Majority -- at least five of the nine justices agree.
- Concurring -- written when the majority didn't go far enough or went too far; the justice has something else to say.
- Plurality -- opinion supported by more justices than any other opinion in a single case, but not supported by a majority of the justices.
- Dissenting -- minority justices explain their reasons for not agreeing with the majority.
- Per curiam -- an unsigned opinion issued by and for the entire court rather than by one judge writing for the court.
- Remanded -- The appellate court returns the case to the lower court, directing the lower court to decide the case consistent with the higher court's opinion.
Return to Media Law Home Page