How the Court Selects Its Docket
Only after a case has worked its way through the federal or state courts and jurisdiction has been established may the losing party appeal to the Supreme Court. The vast majority of these requests come in the form of a petition for a writ of certiorari, which is a fancy way of saying “petition for a hearing.” Appellants may also seek requests for certification (taking a look at the validity of laws used in the lower courts), per curiam decisions (decisions given without an opinion), or petitions for an “extraordinary writ” to get before the high court (that is, to get the high court's hearing before the case has been tried at a lower court). However, these measures are rarely used.
Reasons to Accept a Case
At least four justices must agree to hear a case before it makes it onto the docket. This is called the “rule of four.” The justices never publish a reason for accepting or declining a case, so the selection process remains a bit of a mystery. When the Court refuses a case, it's essentially affirming the lower court's decision.
Contrary to popular belief, there is no absolute right of appeal to the Supreme Court. While every year the court is flooded with thousands of petitions from aggrieved parties, only about 1 percent will get a hearing.
The Supreme Court looks for one of several situations when deciding to accept a case. If the lower courts are in disagreement over the same legal issue, the Court will usually intervene to resolve it. The same holds true when a lower court's ruling conflicts with a Supreme Court decision. Sometimes the Court will hear a case that involves an issue that it has not yet ruled on. And once in a while, it will choose a case if the Court believes that the legal principle at stake could have an impact beyond the litigants involved.