“I’ll take this case all the way to the Supreme Court if I have to!” This common declaration of litigants who lost their case in a lower court makes it sound simple to appeal to the highest court in the land. In truth, getting a case heard by the Supreme Court is anything but common or easy. In fact, it is incredibly unlikely – strictly from a numbers perspective – that a case will ever advance to the nation’s ultimate arbiter of justice. How unlikely? If your civil case was one of the 344,567 cases docketed in the Federal District Courts in 2020, your chances of ultimately having the case argued before the Supreme Court was approximately 1 in 4,786. (By comparison, your odds of having your home burn down are roughly 1 in 3,000!1)
But why is it statistically unlikely to get a case heard by the Supreme Court? Here are some factors that determine what cases go to the Supreme Court:
Types of Cases Heard by the Supreme Court
The exceedingly small number of cases heard by the Supreme Court usually includes only those that “could have national significance, might harmonize conflicting decisions in the federal Circuit courts, and/or could have precedential value.”2 Getting a case heard by the Supreme Court of the United States (or SCOTUS) also has only three paths to reach that end. First, there is “original jurisdiction.” This is the path of a case that originates at the Supreme Court level. Such cases are rare and might include ones affecting Ambassadors and those in which a U.S. state is an affected party. A case might also advance to the Supreme Court if a state-level high court has ruled in such a manner that a Constitutional issue has been decided. These, too, tend to be rare.
The majority of the several dozen other cases that reach the Supreme Court begin in lower courts and progress through the appellate system; the Supreme Court carries ultimate “appellate jurisdiction” to decide these cases which have progressed through lower appeals courts.
Statistics About Supreme Court Cases
The 2021 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary provides some telling statistics regarding recent Supreme Court cases, as well as the lower federal courts whose rulings led to these cases.3 For example:
- The number of cases filed with the Supreme Court in the 2020 Term totaled 5,307
- Arguments were heard in 72 of these cases
- 69 of the 72 cases were disposed of in 55 signed opinions
- To reach that level, the federal district courts docketed 344,567 civil cases, with 27,500 filings of civil appeals in the 12 regional U.S. Courts of Appeals (per USCourts.gov)
Why is it difficult to get a case heard by the Supreme Court? Here are some principal factors that influence which cases become Supreme Court cases:
- Cases heard by the Supreme Court usually include only those that “could have national significance, might harmonize conflicting decisions in the federal Circuit courts, and/or could have precedential value.”
- There are three paths to reach the Supreme Court: 1) “Original jurisdiction” cases which originate at the Supreme Court level, 2) cases from a state-level high court where a Constitutional issue was decided, and 3) cases which began in lower courts and progressed through the appellate system
- In 2020, of the 344,567 cases docketed in the Federal District Courts, only 1 in 4,786 ended up being argued before the Supreme Court
At Ciyou & Dixon, P.C., our appellate attorneys draw on decades of collective experience handling legal appeals in civil, criminal, and family law cases. To learn more about how to improve your chances to get your case heard by the Supreme Court, contact us today at (317) 972-8000.
This blog post provides general educational material answering the question, “Why Is It Difficult to Take a Case to the Supreme Court?” Being an educated legal consumer can help you make the most of the legal experience in meeting your legal objectives. This information is presented by attorneys at Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. who practice throughout the State of Indiana. It is not a solicitation, nor is it intended to provide specific legal advice. It is an advertisement. Information contained herein is subject to change.