Writ of Certiorari: Definition & Example

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Schubert

Jessica is a practicing attorney and has taught law and has a J.D. and LL.M.

This lesson will teach you about what it takes to have a case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. You will review what constitutes a writ of certiorari. In addition to understanding this legal term, you'll also review an example.


Imagine that you filed a case in federal court to decide whether you should have to pay a tax on a student loan. The lower federal district court reviews the case at trial and decides you should have to pay the extra tax. You are unhappy, so you go to the next court in line and appeal the decision. An appeal is where you challenge the lower court's decision to the next court in the hierarchy. The next court, the Court of Appeals, hears the case and agrees with the lower court. Therefore, you seek a review by the highest federal court, which is the U.S. Supreme Court. In order for you to obtain a review by the Supreme Court, you need to receive permission by a writ of certiorari from the Supreme Court.

Writ of certiorari, translated from Latin, means 'to be informed of.' In plain English, a writ of certiorari is a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the appeal from the lower courts. It is basically permission and approval to proceed with the case.

In order to obtain a writ of certiorari, one has to file what is known as the petition for writ of certiorari. This petition is a formal request for the Supreme Court to hear the case. The petition is simply a legal document requesting review, as well as a listing of reasons why the Supreme Court should hear the case.

There are various but limited reasons why the Supreme Court will review a lower court case. The Supreme Court's decision to hear a case is discretionary, or optional, so the Court can elect to accept or deny review of the case. The Court does not take many cases each year. However, the cases which have been accepted and reviewed often include those which involve constitutional law questions, compelling interests, or strong social issues.

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