Writ of Certiorari

A Writ of Certiorari orders a lower court to forward all documents in a case it has heard to the higher court for review. While this is most commonly used by the U.S. Supreme Court, other courts, such as the U.S. Court of Appeals, state supreme courts, and state courts of appeal, may issue such a writ. The U.S. Supreme Court is very selective about which cases it will hear, accepting cases only when at least four of the justices believe the case raises a significant federal question that is in the public’s interest. To explore this concept, consider the following writ of certiorari definition.

Definition of Certiorari



  1. An order issued by a higher court demanding a lower court forward all records of a specific case for review.


1515-1525 Latin (to be informed)

What is a Writ

The term “writ” refers to a formal written order issued by an agency with judicial or administrative jurisdiction, most commonly a court. The most commonly used types of writ issued include subpoenas, warrants, and prerogative writs, all of which are used to initiate some action.

History of Certiorari

Historically, certiorari dates back to Roman law, the term used both to indicate a need or duty to review a case, and the duty to inform other parties of a legal ruling. Primarily, the term as used in Roman literature indicates that a case will be heard. Today, the term is most often used when the U.S. Supreme Court decides to review a lower court’s decision for reversible error.

Prior to the Judiciary Act of 1891, also known as the “Evarts Act,” the U.S. Supreme Court heard all cases brought before it as a matter of right, which is to say it was bound to review each case on its merits, hear oral argument, and issue a decision. As the country expanded into the 20th century, the burden on the judicial system resulted in a backlog of the Supreme Court that was several years long.

The Evarts Act created nine new courts of appeal, each composed of one district judge and two circuit judges, that were given jurisdiction over direct appeals of lower court decisions. Additional legislation, in the form of the Judiciary Act of 1925, and the Supreme Court Case Selections Act of 1988, most cases may not be appealed directly to the U.S. Supreme Court. If a party wishes the Supreme Court to review a decision made by a lower court, it must submit a “Petition for Writ of Certiorari” to the court. This is a significant project, as the Petition for Writ of Certiorari must be printed in a booklet form, following very specific formatting guidelines, the original and 40 copies filed with at the Supreme Court clerk’s office.

A Petition for Writ of Certiorari is a complex legal document, so there is no pre-printed Writ of Certiorari form for laypeople to use. Individuals may find a Writ of Certiorari example to view how the first pages of the petition are formatted.

Certiorari in the State Court System

While some state courts of appeal use the term of certiorari, others use such terms as “writ of review,” “certification for appeal,” and “leave to appeal,” to describe the state Supreme Court’s consent to hear a case on appeal. In states that have no intermediate courts of appeal, the state Supreme Court has a mandatory obligation to review decisions of lower courts.

Denial of Writ of Certiorari

While there is some confusion as to what effect a refusal to issue a Writ of Certiorari has, it basically means the Supreme Court has decided to do nothing. Denial of certiorari does not mean the court approves of the decision made by the lower court, it is simply the practical result of the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court receives more than 5,000 Petitions for Writ of Certiorari each year, of which it only agrees to hear about two percent. A denial of certiorari often only means that the minimum of four justices did not feel the case should be heard.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Reversible Error – a legal mistake made at the trial court level that is so significant as to result in an unfair trial outcome.
  • Subpoena – a writ issued by the court ordering a person to appear as a witness in a judicial proceeding, or requesting submission of certain evidence.
  • Warrant – a writ issued by a court or other legal official authorizing law enforcement or other agency to make an arrest, search a premises, or take some other action related to the administration of justice.