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How a case gets to the US Supreme Court

Thousands of cases are submitted; few are selected.

On Friday, January 27, President Donald Trump signed an executive order temporarily banning immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries and halting almost all refugee admissions to the United States. Within a week, the order had failed: On the following Friday, US District Court Judge James Robart issued a ruling that nullified key components of the ban nationwide. In reaction, Trump soon tweeted that he would “SEE YOU IN COURT!” Despite this declaration, Trump did not appeal Judge Robart’s ruling to the Supreme Court. Instead, the administration issued a revised travel ban on March 6.

Although it lasted longer than a week, the second version of the travel ban met a similar fate. Nine days after the ban was issued, US District Court Judge Derrick Watson delivered a ruling that blocked enforcement of the ban. Again, Trump has vowed to appeal the verdict. At a rally in Nashville on March 15, he promised to fight the ruling “as far as it needs to go, including all the way up to the Supreme Court!” But if and when that happens, a hearing of the case will be the singular result of a decision made by the justices of the Court.

To determine whether the travel ban will reach the Supreme Court, it helps to consider three of the most common types of cases heard by the Court. As the video above explains in more detail, the first type is a case of national importance, like when the Court helped decide the 2000 presidential election. A second type of case involves a decision by a lower court that goes against federal law. An example is the case Gonzales v. Raich, in which an appellate ruling in the Ninth Circuit had invalidated federal law restricting the use of medical marijuana in California. Finally, the Court accepts cases in order to resolve split decisions, which occur when a ruling in a lower court, such as a circuit court, is in conflict with a ruling in a different circuit court. An example of this type of case is Obergefell v. Hodges, which concerned the legality of same-sex marriage.

The tendency to choose these types of cases demonstrates the Court’s intention to respond to legislative and judicial decisions made elsewhere. Soon after Judge Watson’s decision, Trump described it as an act of “unprecedented judicial overreach.” Whether the Supreme Court agrees with him remains to be seen.

To learn more about Supreme Court case selection and the structure of the federal court system, make sure to watch the video above.