I was checking the US Supreme Court’s website for recent opinions and came across one for State of Montana v. State of Wyoming and State of North Dakota. This opinion looks very different than the others I’ve read in the past. Specifically:

  • The case was based on a “Bill of Complaint,” not a writ of certiorari, which is what I’m more used to seeing.

  • The case references a “Special Master,” a term I’ve never seen before.

  • The opinion is not signed, not even “Per Curiam.”

  • The opinion states a “Decree,” which is quite different than the structure I’m used to seeing.

  • The case number is “137, Orig.,” which seems to be a different numbering system than what’s typically used.

I’ve been trying to Google these terms to see what they mean, but I’m having trouble finding anything on them.

I know that the US Supreme Court has original jurisdiction in cases between states. Is this an exercise of that jurisdiction? If not, what exactly is this type of opinion?

  • Yes. Cases involving one U.S. state suing one or more other U.S. states are part of the U.S. Supreme Court's original jurisdiction.
    – ohwilleke
    Feb 21, 2018 at 4:53

1 Answer 1


Yes. States, when litigating among one another, file bills of complaint such as the one you linked to in your question.

A special master is usually a court appointee whose job it is to assist with making sure the judgment is carried out properly. This could take the form in appointing a special master to take over a police department's operations in the wake of civil rights rulings against it for corruption, racism, etc. Another example is they can be sent to make evidentiary rulings at a deposition on the spot.

  • In SCOTUS original jurisdiction practice, a "special master" acts basically as a magistrate judge in a district court to take evidence from the parties and supervise pre-trial procedures, who then presents the evidence collected to the Supreme Court for consideration, sometimes with a non-binding recommendation concerning how it should rule on the matter.
    – ohwilleke
    Feb 21, 2018 at 18:03
  • When Vermont sued New Hampshire in 1915 over details of the boundary, the court appointed a special master who was a lawyer from Kentucky who wrote a long report (more than 200 pages, I think?) on the history of the boundary going back to 1664. The court decided the case in 1933. Dec 13, 2020 at 6:30
  • @ohwilleke: Please inform us, if you will, what the jurisdiction or corpus of law a "district" court occupies... And maybe while you at it, you can tell us about these "circuit" courts and what jurisdiction they occupy. Dec 30, 2023 at 22:40
  • @MarkRosenblitt-Janssen Those are separate questions. But, a U.S. District Court is basically the primary federal trial court that handles federal question cases, cases with a diversity of citizenship, and cases with U.S. government parties. The U.S. Courts of Appeal for the various circuits hear appeals from U.S. District Courts (and a handful of administrative agencies and specialized federal courts).
    – ohwilleke
    Dec 31, 2023 at 20:29

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