Supreme Court Breakdown Part I: SCOTUS Procedure

One of the things I have noticed when major SCOTUS cases come down, is that many people misunderstand how a case gets to SCOTUS. Keep in mind, there is a difference between the establishment of a right, and regulating how that right is accessed by the public. In separate posts I will explain how to read or dissect a SCOTUS decision and the some FAQs regarding Obergefell v. Hodges aka the “marriage equality” case.

Before a case can get to the Supreme Court (except in very rare circumstances), a lawsuit has to be filed in a State or Federal Court alleging some issue.  Depending on whether you are in the State or Federal Court system, and whether it is a criminal or civil matter, litigants (people who sue) may appeal to the appellate court.  Many state court systems have an appeals court and then a State Supreme Court.   On the federal side, there are Federal Trial Courts, Federal Courts of Appeal, and then SCOTUS. SCOTUS receives thousands of request for review a year and only hears a very small amount of such requests. In order to have a case heard by SCOTUS, a litigant has to appeal the case. Generally SCOTUS hears cases upon appeal from lower federal courts.  When a party is appealing to SCOTUS, they will file a petition for writ of certiorari. If SCOTUS agrees to hear the case, it will generally schedule the case for oral arguments. Some issues are decided without hearing oral arguments from the parties’ attorneys. In certain situations, outside groups or interested intervals not a party to the proceedings can file amicus curiae (friends of the court) briefs. These briefs are intended to offer additional information that bears on the outcome of a case.

In some cases, SCOTUS will hear cases upon appeal from a State Supreme Court.  In other cases, SCOTUS will hear cases upon appeal from a Federal Court of Appeal.   Pursuant to Art. III §2 of the United State Constitution, SCOTUS has jurisdiction in disputes involving

all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority;-to all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls;-to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction;-to Controversies to which the United States shall be a Party;-to Controversies between two or more States;—between a State and Citizens of another State;-between Citizens of different States;—between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States, and between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects.

There are a few very specific circumstances where SCOTUS will have “original” jurisdiction, meaning it is the first court of consideration.

In the most basic sense SCOTUS has the power to overrule or “invalidate legislation or executive actions which, in the Court’s considered judgment, conflict with the Constitution. This power of ‘judicial review’ has given the Court a crucial responsibility in assuring individual rights, as well as in maintaining a ‘living Constitution’ whose broad provisions are continually applied to complicated new situations.” (

What is judicial review you may ask? Well judicial review is the ability of the SCOTUS to review “actions of the executive and legislative branches of government are subject to review and possible invalidation by the judicial branch. Judicial review allows the Supreme Court to take an active role in ensuring that the other branches of government abide by the constitution.” (  The concept of judicial review was firmly established over 212 years ago in the seminal case Marbury v. Madison.

After hearing oral arguments, the Justices will have a meeting to vote on how to decide the case. In general majority rules! Decisions will include the majority reasoning and ruling, and where relevant a dissenting opinion.  The dissenting opinion is the reasoning of the minority position on a case.

Essentially, a Supreme Court ruling is final. The only ways to overturn a SCOTUS ruling is by way of constitutional amendment (which requires ratification by 3/4 of the states) or a subsequent SCOTUS decision. When SCOTUS interprets a statute, Congress can take new legislative action.

 For a more detailed explanation see Supreme Court Procedure : SCOTUSblog.


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