Chapter 5

JurisdictionUnited States
Chapter 5 Supreme Courts

Every state and the federal government has a supreme court. Most of them call it that, but some do not. In New York, for instance, the highest court is the Court of Appeals and the New York Supreme Court is a lowly trial court.

Most states have intermediate appellate courts of the type described in the previous chapter. A few small states do not. In those states, the only appellate court is the supreme court.

But most such courts are similar to each other. They usually consist of nine or seven (sometimes five) justices who sit as a group. They hear cases that are almost always from the intermediate appellate courts. Sometimes they will also hear cases from state administrative agencies, but those instances are the exception.

Unlike the appellate courts, supreme courts usually choose which cases they hear. A losing party petitions for review, and the justices decide whether the case is important enough to spend their limited time on. Remember that the appellate courts can have as many panels of three judges as they want, but a supreme court has only one group of judges, so the number of cases it can decide is very limited.

Let's dig a little deeper into the differences between appellate courts and supreme courts. The main task of appellate courts is what is called "error correction." They make sure that the trial courts have correctly and consistently applied the law. They provide more fairness to parties by taking a second look when a losing party believes that a mistake was made. This second look gives the parties a greater feeling of comfort about the fairness of the proceedings. That fairness, in turn, leads to greater faith by society in the legitimacy of the rule of law.

There are some instances where supreme courts also serve an error correction role, and we will get to those shortly, but their major role is different. They are there to eliminate inconsistency in the application of the law and to provide direction in new and emerging areas of the law. There is some controversy about the second role, but let's deal with the first role before we get into the debate.

As mentioned earlier, the appellate courts sit in panels of three judges. Many such panels may hear cases every month, issuing hundreds or even thousands of opinions every year. In the course of doing so, it is almost certain that one panel will see the law slightly differently than another. The second panel may not even be aware of the first panel's decision if it...

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