While thousands of court cases make their way to the Supreme Court’s “desk”, less than 100 are heard. Your textbook highlights the rule of four–or the idea that four justices have to agree to hear a case–but what makes a justice likely to want to hear a particular case. In the following task, you’ll learn the process the Supreme Court follows in the exercises of its power of judicial review. In general, we can discuss five reasons a case may be more likely to be heard and five reasons that would make it less likely to be heard.
Criteria for Choosing a Case:
- Solicitor General Appeals: The solicitor general is the government’s top attorney, in cases where he or she appeals the case to the Supreme Court, they may be more likely to hear it.
- Inconsistent Lower Court Rulings: If lower court rulings are all over the place, the Supreme Court might want to step in an make a consistent, final ruling.
- Serious Departures: If lower court rulings show a serious departure from previous precedent, the Supreme Court also may want to step in to avoid confusion.
- Key Questions: Some legal questions are too big to avoid–for instance, health care, gay marriage, school desegregation.
- Conflict with Prior Decisions: If lower court rulings have conflicted seriously with prior decisions the Supreme Court is also likely to hear the case, this is similar to the serious departures criteria mentioned above.
Criteria for Rejecting a Case:
- Better Case in the Pipelines: Justices pay attention to major cases working their way through the system, if a “better case” is out there, they may wait.
- Issue Hasn’t “Percolated”: If an issue suddenly appears on the radar, but hasn’t seen many lower court rulings or court cases, the Supreme Court is unlikely to jump in.
- Too Many Issues: If a petition raises too many questions, the Supreme Court is likely to reject the case, they prefer to focus on one issue.
- Bad Vehicle: Some court cases just don’t make a good “vehicle” for a decision–maybe there is some situation in the original case that raises eyebrows. In this case, the justices are going to look for a “better case.”
- Frivolous Cases: Anyone can appeal a case to the Supreme Court, but frivolous cases aren’t likely to be heard!
For your final discussion forum posting, I’d like you to weigh in on one of the following writs of certiorari, which have been adapted from the Street Law (Links to an external site.) organization. In the forum below, answer the following questions for ONE of the case studies:
- Do you think the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case?
- Why or why not?
Case Study #1: In the spring semester of 2002, Scott County School District instituted a policy that allowed suspicion-less campus-wide drug sweeps with drug-sniffing dogs to be conducted at local schools. At Austin High School in Austin, Indiana, one such search turned up a handgun in a student’s car. The student was charged with possession of a firearm on school property. At trial, the defendant moved to suppress the handgun, arguing that it was found as a result of an illegal search.
The court denied the motion and both the court of appeals and Indiana Supreme Court affirmed that decision. The petitioner argues that the Supreme Court needs to decide whether the Fourth Amendment allows suspicion-less drug sweeps such as this at school. The respondent argues that lower courts agree that suspicion-less, warrantless searches on school grounds are reasonable. No court has held that the Fourth Amendment prohibits this type of drug sweep at school.
Case Study #2: A federal law allowed for the allocation of federal aid to provide computer equipment in public and private schools for “secular, neutral and non-ideological” programs. In Jefferson Parrish, Louisiana, about 30% of the funding allocated under this law went to private schools, many of them religiously affiliated. Several public school parents sued, arguing that the federal law allocating funds for educational materials to private schools violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
The Fifth Circuit ruled that this provision did violate the First Amendment because it was an impermissible governmental aid to religious schools. The Ninth Circuit, in analyzing the same issue in a different case, said that there was no violation of the First Amendment. A recent Supreme Court decision already decided that it was okay for public school teachers to offer remedial courses in parochial school classrooms. The Solicitor General of the U.S. filed a brief asking the Court to grant certiorari.
The best responses will reflect a knowledge of the process the Supreme Court follows in the exercise of its power of judicial review and careful application of course materials