What with all the brouhaha about the (moronic) "Obama Citizenship" cases, time for a primer about how the Supreme Court and lawsuits work.
- A federal case begins in a Federal District Court. The trial court hears the case and ultimately makes a final decision on it. Until there is a final decision, you cannot appeal (with very few exceptions). Common final decisions are:
A) A grant of a motion to dismiss, finding that the allegations in the complaint are not enough to state a cause of action. A subset of this is how the "Citizenship" cases were decided--in order to bring a case, you must have "standing"--this means you must show that you, personally, are being or will be harmed. If you lack standing, you can't pursue the case.
B) A grant of summary judgment, finding that after discovery, undisputed evidence shows that a claim is legally barred.
C) A judge or jury decision resolving the case after trial.
D) A grant or denial of preliminary injunctive relief.
If a case settles, there's no appeal (though there can be exceptions in criminal cases, where pleas subject to right to challenge evidentiary rulings sometimes occur).
What's next? After the flip.
- As of right, there is an appeal to the Circuit Court of Appeals, and the Court of Appeals must hear it. With the exception of certain types of cases (some tax cases and veterans cases, patent cases, and a few others), Circuits are geographical and regional. The Court of Appeals re-examines the case based primarily on briefs submitted by the parties. It does not hear evidence. Indeed, it can only overturn factual findings of a lower court if those findings are "clearly erroneous." (That's a very very high standard.) Circuit courts may also stay the District Court's ruling pending the appeal, and commonly do where the District Court's ruling requires action by a party (e.g., an order to stop selling certain products because they have been determined to infringe a patent, trademark, or copyright). The court may affirm (say the decision below was right), reverse (say the decision below was wrong), remand (say that the decision below failed to consider certain things and send it back for further consideration), or any combination thereof.
- The losing party in the Circuit Court then has the right to appeal to SCOTUS. However, SCOTUS review is discretionary. While you have the right to petition for review (known to law-talkin'-folks as certorari or "cert"), SCOTUS can say "buzz off." SCOTUS recieves dozens, if not hundreds, of cert petitions a week, but only takes 60-80 cases a year on average. Indeed, many parties who have cert petitions filed against them simply file a waiver of response.
A party seeking emergency intervention must go first to their "Circuit Judge." The current Circuit Judge assignments are listed here. This means that if your case comes out of the 9th Circuit (West Coast), your application for emergency relief must be directed to Kennedy. The most common "emergency relief" applications are death penalty cases.
While one judge can grant an emergency stay, you need 5 votes to grant a full stay. Example--let's say a death case comes up in New York. Justice Ginsburg as Circuit Justice grants emergency stay. For that stay to be continued, she needs four other votes. Here's where it gets weird--while you need 5 votes for a stay, you need only 4 votes to hear a case. Hypothetically, it's possible that Ginsburg, Breyer, Souter, and Stevens all vote to hear the case and grant a stay. The case would thus be heard. Absent a stay, however, the prisoner will be executed (and the case mooted) before the court hears the case. In prior years, there'd be a judge that would swing to grant a stay in such circumstances, but this has not been common in recent years. (The closest we have to that currently is Justice Kennedy.)
So what's actually happening with the citizenship case? Plaintiff sought injunctive relief in a District Court. Not only was his injunctive relief denied, but his case was dismissed for lack of standing. He appealed it to the Third Circuit, which affirmed the dismissal. He filed a cert petition and emergency relief petition to Souter. Souter denied it. He then tried to present it to Thomas. Thomas said "we'll deal with it at a cert conference, but I'll ask it go on the next conference, on the off chance that someone expresses interest, since your case would be moot if we pushed it back further." This afternoon, the Justices will meet for a routine conference to deal with the cert petitions. This case almost certainly won't even be specifically mentioned, but simply added to the long list of "denials" that issue. There won't be four votes to grant cert, much less five votes to grant a stay. An order to that effect will issue Monday or Tuesday. There's no strangeness, no shennanigans--just standard court procedure. Stop freakin' out, folks.
ETA--The fact that this, which demonstrates at best willful ignorance into SCOTUS procedures, is nearing the top of the rec list, demonstrates why I wrote this diary.
ETA--Holy crap--the rec list for the first time ever? Thanks, y'all!