is created by David Witten, a mathematics and computer science student at Vanderbilt University. For more information, see the "About" page.

Supreme Court

How does the Supreme Court take a case?

The Supreme Court's Jurisdiction

Original Jurisdiction

The Supreme Court has original jurisdiction, meaning it is the first court to hear the case, in multiple instances. For example, when it is a case between multiple states, the case can't be heard in a state court of a district court, so the Supreme Court hears it. In addition, it may exercise original jurisdiction in cases affecting ambassadors and other diplomats, if the federal government is a party in the case, or if it concerns maritime or admiralty laws. In practice, the only original jurisdiction cases heard before the court concern disputes between multiple states.

Appellate Jurisdiction

The supreme court has appellate jurisdiction, meaning it's the appeal court, over all federal courts, and all state courts involving federal law. 

How does it take a case?

The Supreme Court gets 7000-8000 petitions for a writ of certiorari, and they obviously can't take all of them. So, they have clerks who go through all the cases, and they recommend cases for the Supreme Court to take. After that, the nine justices vote on whether to take the case.

Rule of Four

In order to accept a court case, four out of nine justices must grant a writ of certiorari. A writ of certiorari is an order seeking judicial review. Basically, if the justices want to review a lower court's decision, they grant a writ of certiorari. 

Why does it take that case?

There are five reasons why a court would grant a writ of certiorari. 

  1. If a court has made a decision that conflicts with precedent
  2. If a court has come up with a new question
  3. If one court of appeals has made a decision that conflicts with another
  4. If there are inconsistences between different state courts
  5. If there is a split decision in the court of appeals

The Court's Decision

The court issues a majority opinion, and justices may issue concurring and dissenting opinions.

Majority Opinion

The majority opinion is the official decision of the court, and the rationale for doing so. 

Concurring Opinion

If another justice agrees with the ruling, but not the rationale, they may write a concurring opinion.

Dissenting Opinion

If another justice disagrees with the ruling, they may write a dissenting opinion. In Lochner v. New York, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote a famous dissent.


When the Supreme Court makes a decision, it relies on the other branches' respect for the Constitution and the law to adhere to the decision. Sometimes, the other branches don't adhere to the ruling. In Worchester v. Georgia, the court ruled that states have no jurisdiction in Indian territory. Andrew Jackson, who was opposed to the ruling, apocryphally said "John Marshall has made his decision- now let him enforce it."

Supreme Court Ideologies

Judicial Restraint

This is a judicial philosophy which states that judges should limit the exercise of their own power. So, judges should hesitate to strike down laws unless they are obviously unconstitutional. They usually respect stare decisis, which is the principle of upholding precedent.

Judicial Activism

Judicial activism is the opposite of judicial activism. Judicial activism refers to rulings made based on personal or political opinions rather than on existing law. For example in Bush v. Gore, all of the conservative justices sided with Bush, and all of the liberal justices sided with Gore.

Scrutiny Tests

When a Supreme Court case involves a protected class, or a minority, the Supreme Court looks more closely. This is because minorities are already at a disadvantage, so the majority could pass laws that would disadvantage the minority. So, the Supreme Court defends minorities, and they employ one of three levels of scrutiny when dealing with civil rights cases.

Strict Scrutiny

When a government action involves a protected class, strict scrutiny kicks in. That involves a three-pronged test: 
It must be justified by a compelling governmental interest. E.g. national security, saving lives

The law must be narrowly tailored, meaning if it's too broad or it doesn't address every aspect of the interest, it fails the test.

It must be the least restrictive means for achieving that goal. So, the government must accomplish its goals while limiting as few rights as possible. 

A famous quote about strict scrutiny says that it is "strict in name, but fatal in practice." In practice, when the court applies strict scrutiny, the government almost always loses. A notable example is Korematsu v. US, where the court applied strict scrutiny and still ruled that Japanese internment camps were legal. 

Intermediate Scrutiny

This is the second level of scrutiny, it isn't as rigorous as Strict Scrutiny, and it isn't as easy as Rational Basis.  The only test for intermediate scrutiny is whether the law in question must further an important government interest by means that are very related to the interest. 

This can be applied in cases involving sex-based classifications, illegitimacy, sexual orientation, free speech, and gun control.

Rational Basis

When the Supreme Court doesn't deal with a protected class, it applies the Rational Basis test for review. This is the lowest level of scrutiny; all it says is that if the government can show it had a rational basis for its actions, then it's constitutional. 



David Witten

The Bureaucracy