What is a Writ of Certiorari?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A writ of certiorari is a writ, or order, sent from a higher court to a lower one that orders the lower court to turn over transcripts and documents related to a specific case for review. In general, this order is issued by the highest court in a nation after a request from a petitioner. The decision to grant such a writ is made at judicial discretion.

A petition for a writ of certiorari.
A petition for a writ of certiorari.

The term comes from a Latin word that means “to be ascertained” or “to make certain.” A writ of certiorari is one of the ways in which a high court can review a case. When a petitioner asks for this order, the request must include an explanation of why the petitioner is resorting to a writ. The request must also indicate what in the case is under dispute, so that the justices are aware of what they are being asked to review.

The United States Supreme Court issues a writ of certiorari when it agrees to review a case.
The United States Supreme Court issues a writ of certiorari when it agrees to review a case.

When a request is submitted to a high court, clerks review it before passing it on to the justices. The justices then vote on which cases are granted writs. In the United States, fewer than 5% of the requests are granted, due to the high volume of requests and the busy court schedule. In Supreme Court shorthand, this is a “Cert. Denied.” When a writ is denied, it does not necessarily mean that the higher court approves of the actions of the lower court, and the denial cannot be viewed as the court's final statement on the issue.

Since most high courts are responsible for interpreting and defending national constitutions and the law, justices tend to grant writs for controversial cases or cases that may set a precedent. Once a lower court has been served with a writ of certiorari, it must turn the requested material over to the higher court. After review, the justices offer a decision on the material, either affirming the decision of the lower court or rejecting it. In most cases, and majority and minority both submit a written opinion of the case.

Petitioners should consider a writ of certiorari a technique of last resort. Since the order must include a reason why the petitioner has no other avenue of redress, it is important to explore all of the ways in which a legal problem can be addressed before submitting it to the highest court. In most nations, the judicial system has a tiered appeals process that should be followed first, in addition to other legal means that a lawyer may suggest.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

anon51268

My question is: How long is the normal wait for a writ of certiorati decision to take? The Supreme court sent our appeal back to the circuit court for a writ of certiorati six months ago and we have not received a decision yet. It has been six months now. Thank you for your time. May God bless you.

anon20589

How I go about writing a "writ of certiorari"?

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