Making It to the Supreme Court

One of the most confusing and misunderstood aspects of the Supreme Court is how a case reaches the high court. Not every legal action can be appealed to the highest court in the land — the Supreme Court must have jurisdiction in order to hear a case. This can be achieved one of two ways.

Original Jurisdiction

Article III, section 2 of the Constitution gives the Supreme Court jurisdiction as the trial court over certain types of cases. These cases of original jurisdiction may be brought directly to the Supreme Court and are adjudicated (judged) only once without the possibility of appeal. Cases of original jurisdiction are extremely rare; fewer than 200 have been decided in the Court's history.

The Constitution lists seven types of disputes that are entitled to original jurisdiction:

  • Cases arising under treaties

  • Cases affecting ambassadors

  • Cases of maritime jurisdiction

  • Cases between two states

  • Cases in which the U.S. government is a party

  • Cases between a state and a citizen of another state

  • Cases between states and foreign countries or citizens

In 1998, the Supreme Court heard a case of original jurisdiction between the state of New Jersey and the state of New York regarding ownership rights to Ellis Island, a well-known landmark and tourist attraction. The Court decided in favor of New Jersey, giving that state ownership rights to most of the island.

Appellate Jurisdiction

Most disputes reach the Supreme Court through its appellate jurisdiction, meaning that the case has already been decided by either the lower federal courts or a state supreme court.

Cases arising through the federal court system begin in the U.S district courts, and involve disputes between citizens of two different states or criminal violations of federal law, such as the interstate trafficking of drugs, murdering a federal law enforcement official, espionage, and so on. The losing side can appeal the decision to one of thirteen U.S. courts of appeals, which are divided among geographic circuits. Whichever party loses in the court of appeals can make a final appeal to the Supreme Court. Most cases of appellate jurisdiction arise through the federal courts system.

Cases arising through the state courts system follow a similar route, only at the state level: A trial court makes a ruling, the losing party can appeal to the state court of appeals, and that loser can appeal to the state supreme court. It can get confusing at times because some states refer to their highest court as the court of appeals, while other states refer to it as the supreme court. Whatever the case may be, all state remedies must be exhausted before the U.S. Supreme Court can consider hearing the case on appellate jurisdiction.

With disputes arising through the state court system, an extra requirement is necessary to establish the Supreme Court's appellate jurisdiction: The appellant must show that an issue of federal law is in dispute. This may seem odd, since cases involving federal law are always settled in federal court, not state court. However, in some cases arising under state law, issues of federal law — such as the violation of a constitutional right (the right to free speech, right to due process, etc.) — are raised and must be resolved at the Supreme Court. In those situations, the Supreme Court can only rule on the federal issue in question. It cannot re-examine matters of state law involved in the case.

During the 2000 presidential election recount, George W. Bush's legal team appealed to the Supreme Court on three grounds regarding the Florida Supreme Court decision to let the recounts go forward: It violated Article 2, section 1 of the Constitution, failed to comply with an obscure federal statute, and violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution.

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