State supreme court

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This article discusses the state supreme courts in the United States. See Australian court hierarchy for the counterparts in Australian states. See Supreme court for the highest court in a country.

In the United States, a state supreme court (known by other names in some states) is the ultimate judicial tribunal in the court system of a particular state (i.e., that state's court of last resort). On matters of state law, the decisions of a state supreme court are considered final and binding on state and even United States federal courts.

Generally, the state supreme court, like most appellate tribunals, is exclusively for hearing appeals of legal issues. It does not make any finding of facts, and thus holds no trials. In the case where the trial court made an egregious error[citation needed] in its finding of facts, the state supreme court will remand to the trial court for a new trial. This responsibility of correcting the errors of inferior courts is the origin of a number of the different names for supreme courts in various state court systems.

The court consists of a panel of judges selected by methods outlined in the state constitution. State supreme courts are completely distinct from any United States federal courts located within the geographical boundaries of a state's territory, or the federal United States Supreme Court (although appeals, on some issues, from judgments of a state's highest court can be sought in the U.S. Supreme Court).

Appellate jurisdiction[edit]

Under American federalism, the interpretation of a state supreme court on a matter of state law is normally final and binding and must be accepted in both state and federal courts.

Federal courts may overrule a state court only when there is a federal question, which is to say, a specific issue (such as consistency with the Federal Constitution) that gives rise to federal jurisdiction. Federal appellate review of state supreme court rulings on such matters may be sought by way of a petition for writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court of the United States. As the U.S. Supreme Court recognized in Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins (1938), no part of the federal Constitution actually grants federal courts or the federal Congress the power to directly dictate the content of state law (as distinguished from creating altogether separate federal law that in a particular situation may override state law). Clause 1 of Section 2 of Article Three of the United States Constitution describes the scope of federal judicial power, but only extended it to "the Laws of the United States" and not the laws of the several or individual states. It is this silence on that latter issue that gave rise to the American distinction between state and federal common law not found in other English-speaking common law federations like Australia and Canada.

One of the informal traditions of the American legal system, derived from the common law, is that all litigants are guaranteed at least one appeal after a final judgment on the merits. However, appeal is merely a privilege provided by statute in 47 states and in federal judicial proceedings; the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that there is no federal constitutional right to an appeal.[1]

Since a few states lack intermediate appellate courts, the state supreme court may operate under "mandatory review", in which it must hear all appeals from the trial courts. This was the case, for example, in Nevada (prior to 2014). Such judicial systems are usually very congested.[2]

Most state supreme courts have implemented "discretionary review," like their federal counterpart. Under such a system, intermediate appellate courts are entrusted with deciding the vast majority of appeals. Intermediate appellate courts generally focus on the mundane task of what appellate specialists call "error correction,"[3] which means their primary task is to decide whether the record reflects that the trial court correctly applied existing law.

For certain limited categories of cases, the state supreme court still operates under mandatory review, usually with regard to cases involving the interpretation of the state constitution or capital punishment. But for the vast majority, the state supreme court possesses the discretion to grant certiorari (known as review in states that discourage the use of Latin). These cases usually pertain to issues which different appellate courts within its jurisdiction have decided differently, or highly controversial cases involving a completely new legal issue never seen in that state. In other words, once the state supreme court is able to offload the tedious burden of error correction to intermediate courts, it can then focus on the long-term task (i.e., a policymaking role) of developing a coherent body of case law for the people of its state.

Iowa, Oklahoma, and Nevada have a unique procedure for appeals. In those states, all appeals are filed with the appropriate Supreme Court (Iowa has a single Supreme Court, while Oklahoma has separate civil and criminal Supreme Courts) which then keeps all cases of first impression for itself to decide. It forwards the remaining cases – which deal with points of law it has already addressed – to the intermediate Court of Appeals. Under this so-called "push-down" or "deflection" model of appellate procedure, the state supreme court can immediately establish final statewide precedents on important issues of first impression as soon as they arise, rather than waiting several months or years for the intermediate appellate court to make a first attempt at resolving the issue (and leaving the law uncertain in the interim).

Notably, the Supreme Court of Virginia operates under discretionary review for nearly all cases, but the intermediate Court of Appeals of Virginia hears appeals as a matter of right only in family and administrative cases. The result is that there is no first appeal of right for the vast majority of civil and criminal cases in that state. Appellants are still free to petition for review, of course, but such petitions are subject to severe length constraints (6,125 words or 35 pages in Virginia) and necessarily are more narrowly targeted than a long opening appellate brief to an intermediate appellate court (in contrast, an opening brief to a California intermediate appellate court can run up to 14,000 words). In turn, the vast majority of decisions of Virginia circuit courts in civil and criminal cases are thereby insulated from appellate review on the merits.

New Hampshire and West Virginia formerly also provided only discretionary review for nearly all cases, even though they had no intermediate appellate court. Both states gradually recognized that even if this arrangement did not offend the federal Constitution, it was unduly harsh for hapless appellants, and transitioned to mandatory review, respectively, in 2004[4] and 2010.[5][6]

Influence of the federal Supreme Court on the state supreme courts[edit]

As noted above, the U.S. Supreme Court may hear appeals from state supreme courts only if there is a question of law under the United States Constitution (which includes issues arising from federal treaties, statutes, or regulations), and those appeals are heard at the Court's sole discretion (that is, only if the Court grants a petition for writ of certiorari).

In theory, state supreme courts are bound by the precedent established by the U.S. Supreme Court as to all issues of federal law, but in practice, the Supreme Court reviews very few decisions from state courts. For example, in 2007 the Court reviewed 244 cases appealed from federal courts and only 22 from state courts. Despite the relatively small number of decisions reviewed, Professors Sara Benesh and Wendy Martinek found that state supreme courts follow precedent more closely than federal courts in the area of search and seizure and appear to follow precedent in confessions as well.[7]


Traditionally, state supreme courts are headquartered in the capital cities of their respective states,[8] though they may occasionally hold oral arguments elsewhere. The seven main exceptions are:

  • Alaska, whose supreme court is located in and usually sits in its largest city, Anchorage (monthly), but also sits in Fairbanks and Juneau (quarterly), and in other Alaskan communities on an as-needed basis.
  • California, whose supreme court is headquartered in San Francisco and maintains only branch offices in the state capital, Sacramento, and the state's largest city, Los Angeles, and hears argument at all three locations each year.
  • Delaware, whose supreme court is located in Wilmington.
  • Louisiana, whose supreme court is headquartered in New Orleans' French Quarter.
  • Maine, whose supreme court is headquartered in Portland.
  • Pennsylvania, whose supreme court has facilities at three coequal locations of Harrisburg, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh.
  • Tennessee, whose state constitution requires its supreme court to sit at three coequal locations of Nashville, Knoxville, and Jackson.

As for the court's actual facilities, a state supreme court may be housed in the state capitol, in a nearby state office building shared with other courts or state executive branch agencies, or in a small courthouse reserved for its exclusive use. State supreme courts normally require a courtroom for oral argument, private chambers for all justices, a conference room, offices for law clerks and other support staff, a law library, and a lobby with a window where the court clerk can accept filings and release new decisions in the form of "slip opinions" (that is, in looseleaf format held together only by a staple).


Court of Appeals[edit]

Because state supreme courts generally hear only appeals, some courts have names which directly indicate their function – in the states of New York and Maryland, and in the District of Columbia, the highest court is called the "Court of Appeals". In New York, the "Supreme Court" is the trial court of general unlimited jurisdiction and the intermediate appellate court is called the "Supreme Court—Appellate Division". Maryland's jury trial courts are called "Circuit Courts" (non-jury trials are usually conducted by the "District Courts," whose decisions may be appealed to the Circuit Courts), and the intermediate appellate court is called the "Court of Special Appeals". West Virginia mixes the two; its highest court is called the "Supreme Court of Appeals".

Other states' supreme courts have used the term "Appeals": New Jersey's supreme courts under the 1844 constitution and Delaware's supreme court were both the "Court of Errors and Appeals"; The term "Errors" refers to the now-obsolete writ of error, which was used by state supreme courts to correct certain types of egregious errors committed by lower courts.

Older terminology[edit]

Massachusetts and New Hampshire originally named their highest courts the "Superior Court of Judicature." Currently, Massachusetts uses the names "Supreme Judicial Court" (to distinguish itself from the state legislature, which is called the Massachusetts General Court), while New Hampshire uses the name "Supreme Court". Additionally the highest court in Maine is named the "Supreme Judicial Court". This similar terminology is probably a holdover from the time when Maine was part of Massachusetts. In Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, and New York, the highest courts formerly used variations of the term "Court of Errors," which indicated that the court's primary purpose was to correct the errors of lower courts.

Dual supreme courts[edit]

Oklahoma and Texas have two separate supreme courts: one for criminal appeals and one for civil cases. In both states, the first is formally called the Court of Criminal Appeals, and the second is called the Supreme Court.


Term length
6 years 15 states
7 years Maine
8 years 11 states
10 years 13 states
12 years 5 states
14 years New York
Life tenure 4 states
Number of members
Five justices 16 states
Seven justices 29 states
Nine justices 5 states

Texas and Oklahoma have dual supreme courts. In Texas, both have nine justices. In Oklahoma the Supreme Court has nine justices and the Court of Criminal Appeals has five (assimilated to nine in the above table).


Judges are either appointed, selected through a merit process (with an election thereafter in some cases), or elected. The elections may be through partisan or non-partisan elections. A non-partisan election does not mean that the judges run and are selected with no regard to political beliefs. In many cases "non-partisan election" merely means the prospective judges' parties are not printed on the ballot. Political contributions to these campaigns may be allowed, including from trade associations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.[9]

Mode of selection
Partisan election 7 states
Non-partisan election 15 states
Missouri Plan 16 states
Appointment by governor with collegial body consent 10 states
Elected by state legislature 2 states



Name and state Mode of selection Term
Number of
Supreme Court of Alabama Partisan election 6 9
Alaska Supreme Court Missouri Plan 10 5
Arizona Supreme Court Missouri Plan 6 7
Arkansas Supreme Court Non-partisan election 10 7
Supreme Court of California Missouri Plan 12 7
Colorado Supreme Court Missouri Plan 10 7
Connecticut Supreme Court Missouri Plan 8 7
Delaware Supreme Court Appointment by the Governor with agreement of Delaware Senate 12 5
Florida Supreme Court Missouri Plan 7 7
Supreme Court of Georgia Non-partisan election 6 9
Supreme Court of Hawaii Appointment by the Governor with agreement of Hawaii State Senate 10 5
Idaho Supreme Court Non-partisan election 6 5
Supreme Court of Illinois Partisan election 10 7
Supreme Court of Indiana Missouri Plan 10 5
Iowa Supreme Court Missouri Plan 8 7
Kansas Supreme Court Missouri Plan 6 7
Kentucky Supreme Court Non-partisan election 8 7
Louisiana Supreme Court Partisan election 10 7
Maine Supreme Judicial Court Appointment by the Governor with agreement of Maine Senate 7 7
Maryland Court of Appeals Appointment by the Governor with agreement of Maryland Senate 10 7
Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Appointment by the Governor with agreement of Massachusetts Governor's Council Life, until 70[10] 7
Michigan Supreme Court Non-partisan election 8 7
Minnesota Supreme Court Non-partisan election 6 7
Supreme Court of Mississippi Non-partisan election 8 9
Supreme Court of Missouri Missouri Plan 12 7
Montana Supreme Court Non-partisan election 8 7
Nebraska Supreme Court Missouri Plan 6 7
Supreme Court of Nevada Non-partisan election 6 7
New Hampshire Supreme Court Appointment by the Governor with agreement of Executive Council of New Hampshire Life, until 70 7
New Jersey Supreme Court Appointment by the Governor with agreement of New Jersey Senate 7 Years, then until 70 7
New Mexico Supreme Court Partisan election 8 5
New York Court of Appeals Appointment by the Governor with agreement of New York State Senate 14 7
North Carolina Supreme Court Partisan election 8 7
North Dakota Supreme Court Non-partisan election 10 5
Ohio Supreme Court Non-partisan election 6 7
Supreme Court of Oklahoma
Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals
Missouri Plan 6 9
Oregon Supreme Court Non-partisan election 6 7
Supreme Court of Pennsylvania Partisan election 10 years, until 75 7
Rhode Island Supreme Court Appointment by the Governor with agreement of Rhode Island General Assembly (both houses) Life 5
South Carolina Supreme Court Elected by South Carolina General Assembly 10 5
South Dakota Supreme Court Missouri Plan 8 5
Tennessee Supreme Court Appointment by the Governor with agreement of Tennessee General Assembly 8 5
Supreme Court of Texas
Texas Court of Criminal Appeals
Partisan election 6 9
Utah Supreme Court Missouri Plan 10 5
Vermont Supreme Court Appointed by governor, with retention vote every 6 years by a majority vote of Vermont Senate 6 5
Supreme Court of Virginia Elected by Virginia General Assembly 12 7
Washington Supreme Court Non-partisan election 6 9
Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia Non-partisan election 12 5
Wisconsin Supreme Court Non-partisan election 10 7
Wyoming Supreme Court Missouri Plan 8 5

Territories and federal district

Name and territory or federal district Mode of selection Term
Number of
High Court of American Samoa Appointment by the United States Secretary of the Interior During good behavior 2
District of Columbia Court of Appeals Appointment by the President with the advice and consent of the United States Senate 15 9
Supreme Court of Guam Appointment by the Governor with the confirmation of the Legislature of Guam During good behavior, subject to a retention election every ten years after his or her appointment 3
Northern Mariana Islands Supreme Court Appointment by the Governor with the confirmation of the Senate of the Northern Mariana Islands 8 3
Supreme Court of Puerto Rico Appointment by the Governor with the confirmation of the Senate of Puerto Rico Mandatory retirement at age 70 9
Supreme Court of the Virgin Islands Appointment by the Governor with the confirmation of the Legislature of the Virgin Islands Initial 10, with a term of good behavior upon reconfirmation 3

Tribal supreme courts[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Smith v. Robbins, 528 U.S. 259, 270 n.5 (2000) ("[t]he Constitution does not . . . require states to create appellate review in the first place"); M.L.B. v. S.L.J., 519 U.S. 102, 110 (1996) ("the Federal Constitution guarantees no right to appellate review").
  2. ^ Valerie Miller, "Judges renew their call for appeals court," Las Vegas Business Press 19, no. 3 (January 21, 2002): 1.
  3. ^ G. Alan Tarr, Judicial Process and Judicial Policymaking, 6th ed. (Stamford: Cengage Learning, 2012), 37 and 139.
  4. ^ "Supreme Court - Judicial Duties". New Hampshire Judicial Branch. Retrieved 16 November 2014. 
  5. ^ Stoneking, Jay (1 October 2014). "State of West Virginia v. McKinley". West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals Blog. Retrieved 16 November 2014. 
  6. ^ "Rules of Appellate Procedure - Part III". West Virginia Judiciary. Retrieved 16 November 2014. 
  7. ^ Sara C. Benesh and Wendy L. Martinek, "Context and Compliance: A Comparison of State Supreme Courts and the Circuits" 93 Marq. L. Rev. 795 (2009).
  8. ^ Edwards, Linda L.; Edwards, J. Stanley (2002). Introduction to Paralegal Studies and the Law: A Practical Approach. Albany, NY: Delmar. p. 124. ISBN 9780766835894. Retrieved 23 December 2015. 
  9. ^ Big Business Taking over State Supreme Courts: How Campaign Contributions to Judges Tip the Scales Against Individuals.
  10. ^ "Massachusetts Court System - About the Supreme Judicial Court". Retrieved 15 February 2016. 
  11. ^ EBCI Tribal Court website