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What is the US Supreme Court's relationship to lower courts and what cases can it review?


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March 01, 2010 4:06PM

Article III, Section 2, of the US Constitution explicitly spells out the responsibility of the Court:

The judicial power shall extend to all cases, in law and equity, arising under this Constitution, the laws of the United States, and treaties made, or which shall be made, under their authority;--to all cases affecting ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls;--to all cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction;--to controversies to which the United States shall be a party;--to controversies between two or more states;--between a state and citizens of another state [later revoked by the 11th Amendment];--between citizens of different states;--between citizens of the same state claiming lands under grants of different states, and between a state, or the citizens thereof, and foreign states, citizens or subjects.

Other legislation (the Judiciary Act of 1789, Title 28 of the U.S. Code, etc.) and case law (beginning with Marbury v. Madison, (1803)) also establishes that the Supreme Court may review (with a few exceptions) any civil or criminal "cases and controversies" arising from questions of constitutional or federal law, or from US treaties, including cases in which the High Court determines Congress has passed unconstitutional legislation (thus, nullifying the law).

The US military has its own system of courts and tribunals (called Article I courts), that rarely interact with civilian (Article III) courts; however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF), the highest military court, is subordinate to the US Supreme Court, and its decisions may be subject to review under certain circumstances.

The current law does not allow parties to cases in the military courts to petition the US Supreme Court for certiorari unless the CAAF has already granted certiorari and reviewed the case. Congress is considering a bill first introduced in 2007 called the "Equal Justice for United States Military Personnel Act of 2009" that would amend the federal judicial code to allow for review by Writ of Certiorari of certain cases denied relief or review by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. As of June 2009, S. 357 is in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In most cases, the Court considers petitions for Writ of Certiorari from United States Court of Appeals Circuit courts and state supreme courts. They may also review cases from The Supreme Court of Puerto Rico, the Marianna Islands, Guam and other US territories.

In certain specific instances, the Court, at its discretion, may review cases submitted directly from U.S. District Courts (bypassing the US Court of Appeals), and may respond to certified questions from the U.S. Court of Appeals either with instructions for how to proceed or by requesting the complete case for appellate decision within the High Court.

Further, each Supreme Court Justice serves as the "Circuit Justice," presiding over one or more US Court of Appeals Circuits, where he or she has the right to receive and decide requests for stays, time extensions, writs of habeas corpus, and writs of mandamus for that Circuit. He or she may also sit as a judge on any case in his or her Circuit (although this rarely happens in practice).

All these cases are said to be within the Court's "jurisdiction." Congress can, and sometimes does, strip the Court of jurisdictional power over certain types of cases by any of several means:

  • By creating a Constitutional Amendment, ratified by the states, that overrides a Supreme Court ruling (this has happened four times in the history of the Court):
  1. 11th Amendment overturned Chisholm v. Georgia (1793)
  2. 13th and 14th Amendments effectively overturned Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857)
  3. 16th Amendment overturned Pollock v. Farmers' Loan & Trust (1895)
  4. 26th Amendment overturned portions of Oregon v. Mitchell (1970)
  • By passing legislation that overrules decisions based on federal law. One example is the Lilly Ledbetter Act (2009), which superceded limitations established in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. (2007).
  • By creating policy issues specifically granting immunity from any form of judicial process:
  1. The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act of 2005 gave immunity to gun manufacturers and owners from lawsuits imposing liability on them for the criminal misuse of their weapons by others.
  2. In 2004, The House of Representatives attempted to prohibit federal courts from ruling on the text of the Pledge of Allegiance (specifically protecting challenges to the controversial phrase, "one Nation under God"). The bill passed the House and was submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2005, where it died.
  3. The House is currently (2009) considering legislation "to amend title 28, United States Code, to limit Federal court jurisdiction over questions under the Defense of Marriage Act."
  4. The REAL ID Act of 2005 stripped the federal courts of the right to hear challenges to the extension of fencing at the United States/Mexico border.
  5. The Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 amended Section 2241 of U.S. Code Title 28 to include: (e) "Except as provided in Section 1005 of the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, no court, justice, or judge shall have jurisdiction to hear or consider..." cases in which the petitioner has been determined to be an "enemy combatant" or is awaiting determination of such status.

    The Act granted the U.S. Court of Appeals District of Columbia Circuit exclusive (but limited) jurisdiction to review decisions of the "Combatant Status Review Tribunals" and "Administrative Review Boards," which replaced both military and federal courts in determining the rights and status of detainees held at Guantanamo Bay.

    The DTA was created in reaction to the US Supreme Court ruling in Rasul et al. v. Bush, President of the United States, et al. 542 US 466 (2004) that held "US courts have jurisdiction to consider challenges to the legality of the detention of foreign nationals captured abroad in connection with hostilities and incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay."

  6. The Military Commissions Act of 2006 extended the 2005 legislation to add a retroactive provision stripping federal jurisdiction for writs of habeas corpus "for all pending and future cases."

    In 2008, the US Supreme Court ruled by a margin of 5-4 in Lakhdar Boumediene, et al. v. George W. Bush, President of the United States, et al, 553 US ___ (2008) that the Military Commissions Act was unconstitutional because it violated the "Suspension Clause" of the US Constitution.

For more detailed information, see Related Questions, below.