The United States Supreme Court is the highest court in the country. It is a federal court created in accordance with the Constitution’s Article III, and has the discretionary and ultimate jurisdiction over all federal courts, and all state court proceedings involving questions of federal law. This is why the Supreme Court is also known as the “court of last resort” and why its decisions are referred to as the “law of the land.”
As a discretionary appellate court, the Supreme Court has the right and ability to pick and choose the matters that it adjudicates. Cases come to the Supreme Court through legal applications known as petitions for writs of certiorari, or “cert.” The Supreme Court can elect to review any decision by a federal court of appeals through written petition in criminal or civil matters. It may also review final judgments from the highest court in any given state, provided that the decision concerns a matter of constitutional or federal concern.
Petitions for cert are voted on in conference between the Justices alone. Four Justices are sufficient to bring the case to briefing, otherwise it is terminated. Cert is granted only for compelling reasons, as noted in the Court’s rules. Examples of this can mean conflict of laws, correcting an egregious wrong in earlier proceedings, important federal law questions, or to review conflicting lower court decisions. Some conflicts that come before the Court are because of a circuit split or situation in which two or more federal appellate courts decide things differently. The Court’s decision to deny cert is not a judgment on or the Court’s opinion of the case itself, but instead memorializes the fact that the lower court decision stands as final in the particular case.
More than 7000 cert petitions are filed each year, and argument or briefing is considered in less than 100 of these. Lastly, there are instances in which the Court is the court of first resort, such as instances in which two states have a dispute against one another, or if there is a dispute between a single state and the United States itself.