How often does the Supreme Court hear cases?
The U.S. Supreme Court hears only a tiny fraction of cases that are appealed to it. More than 8,000 cases are appealed to the Court every year and the Court only hears about 70 to 75 cases per year. The current Court—led by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.—has heard fewer cases than at any time since the early 1950s.
What determines when the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case?
The Court hears a case when four justices agree to review a lower court decision. This unwritten rule is called "the rule of four." Often the Court will hear a case when the justices believe that they must settle a conflict in the lower courts—sometimes referred to as a split in the circuits or split in the different state high courts.
The Justices of the 1894 U.S. Supreme Court (from left to right): Horace Gray, Howell E. Jackson, Stephen J. Field, Henry B. Brown, Melville W. Fuller (Chief Justice), George Shiras Jr., John M. Harlan, Edward D. White (who would succeed Fuller as Chief Justice), and David J. Brewer. The number of justices has been set at nine since the Judiciary Act of 1869 (Library of Congress).
What types of attorneys argue cases before the U.S. Supreme Court?
Most lawyers never argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Some attorneys practice regularly before the U.S. Supreme Court as members of the Supreme Court Bar. Other attorneys have argued an almost unbelievable number of cases. Walter Jones argued a record 317 cases before the high court from 1801 to 1850. The great Daniel Webster, a U.S. congressman and attorney from Massachusetts who lived from 1782 to 1852, argued nearly 250 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He was involved in many landmark decisions, such as Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1819), Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), and Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge (1837).
William Wirt, who served as the country's U.S. attorney general from 1817 to 1829, argued more than 170 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, including McCullough v. Maryland (1819), Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1832).
Another U.S. attorney general, William Pinckney, argued numerous cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Current Supreme Court litigator Steven M. Shapiro called Pinckney the "Supreme Court's greatest advocate."
In the twentieth century, Hayden Covington—longtime counsel to the Jehovah Witnesses, won 37 of the 44 cases he argued before the high court in the U.S. Supreme Court, including a victory for boxer Cassius Clay (better known as Muhammad Ali).
John William Davis, who lived from 1873 to 1955, argued 140 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, including Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. v. Sawyer (1952), and Brown v. Board of Education (1954).
In the present day, Tom Goldstein of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer and Feld has argued 21 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, and he is only 40 years old. His practice consists nearly entirely of U.S. Supreme Court cases. Other lawyers may argue one case before the U.S. Supreme Court, while representing a the litigant from the beginning of a case.
Those who serve as solicitor general, a position appointed by the president to argue for the United States, naturally argue many more cases than even those members of the Supreme Court Bar who regular argue cases. Seth Waxman, now a law professor, previously served as solicitor general and argued 31 cases before the high court.
One of the greatest attorneys to have argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court was John William Davis, whose career also included time served in the House of Representatives, as a diplomat to Great Britain, and founder of the law firm Davis, Polk & Wardell (Library of Congress).