How does the Supreme Court decide to hear a case?

How the Supreme Court decides to hear a case is based on the Rule of Four: at least four of the nine Justices of the Supreme Court must agree to hear the case by granting the Petition for Certiorari. A Petition for Certiorari is granted in very few select cases—fewer than 100 a year. Learn more in our free legal guide below.

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Feb 9, 2021

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The U.S. Supreme Court decides to hear a case based on at least four of the nine Justices of the Supreme Court agreeing to grant the Petition for Certiorari. If four Justices agree to grant the petition, the Supreme Court will consider the case. A Petition for Certiorari is granted in very, few selected cases, fewer than 100 a year, by the Supreme Court of the United States.

What is a petition for Writ of Certiorari?

A petition for Writ of Certiorari is a request that the court hear oral arguments in your case. The Supreme Court receives over 5000 writs of Certiorari every year. Each writ and the case it comes from is reviewed by the Supreme Court clerks and then shortened into a cert. memo upon review. The cert. memo is what the Supreme Court justices use to actually make a decision on whether to hear arguments in the case.

Upon review of the memo, the particular justice that the case was assigned to will either deny the appeal himself and affirm the appeals court judgment or will bring the cert. memo before the other justices and debate whether the case should be heard.

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What needs to happen for your case to be heard by the Supreme Court?

In order for the case to be heard, four justices must agree to hear the case. This is known as the Rule of Four. If four justices vote to hear the case, then the court grants certiorari and it is placed onto the court’s docket. Then the parties and their attorneys are notified that the Supreme Court agrees to hear the case.

The court will typically grant the petitions of cases that are exceptionally unique and that present an issue of law or constitutional issues that would be considered far-reaching throughout the United States. The Supreme Court also prefers cases that are clear examples for the lower courts so that exact guidance can be given.

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