Is it a matter of choice that the US Supreme Court will reject a case from a State Supreme Court that does not have a federal question or are there binding jurisdictional requirements that would prevent them as well? I understand the point about their inability to reinterpret state law already interpreted by state courts.

2 Answers 2


No, it cannot:

  • Federalism allows state courts to have the final word on the interpretation of state laws.
  • Article III of the U.S. Constitution imposes a jurisdictional requirement of an actual "case or controversy" on all federal courts.
  • Therefore, without the authority to reverse the state court's decision, there is no "controversy" in a case where the interpretation of state law is the deciding question.

Long answer: When the state-law interpretation is adequate to justify the state supreme court's decision and is independent of any question of federal law, a SCOTUS decision cannot change the outcome of the case. And if hearing a dispute cannot change its outcome, you have not satisfied Article III's "case or controversy" requirement

The Supreme Court has pretty much always adhered to the view that it has no jurisdiction to review a state court decision that rested on "adequate and independent state grounds," meaning that the state court decision would not change if the meaning of some federal law changed:

[T]he relations which the State courts sustain to this court are not those of an inferior court of the United States. Congress cannot impose duties upon them, nor invest them with judicial power. They were created by the several States to interpret and give effect to their respective constitutions and laws, and to administer justice according to law. ... Human ingenuity may be challenged to offer a reason why ‘the judgment or decree’ of the State court should be reversed here upon a point having no relation to, or connection with, the question, in the absence of which this court would confessedly have no jurisdiction whatever of the suit.

Murdock v. City of Memphis, 87 U.S. 590, 612–13, (1874)

For instance, imagine that you live in a state whose constitution provides protections against unreasonable searches and seizures identical to the those in the Fourth Amendment. The police arrest you, and you seek to suppress evidence that you say they took in violation of the state constitution. The state supreme court says the search violated the Fourth Amendment and therefore the state constitution -- suppress the evidence.

The state-law question is not "independent" of the federal question, so if the state court is wrong about what the Fourth Amendment allows, it is also wrong about what state law allows. SCOTUS can hear the case to decide the Fourth Amendment question, which could change the answer to the state law question, change the decision to suppress, and therefore change the outcome of the case.

But imagine the same decision in a state whose constitution provides protection against unreasonable searches and seizures greater than those provided in the Fourth Amendment. The state supreme court might be wrong about what the Fourth Amendment allows, but it can't be wrong about what the state constitution allows (at least not in any way that matters).

What would happen if SCOTUS heard the case? There are two possible outcomes:

  • It might decide that Fourth Amendment analysis was correct -- suppress the evidence for violating the Fourth Amendment.
  • It might decide that the Fourth Amendment analysis was wrong -- suppress the evidence anyway for violating the state constitution.

If the outcome can't change, there is no case or controversy, which is also a jurisdictional requirement. Simon v. E. Kentucky Welfare Rights Org., 426 U.S. 26, 37 (1976) ("No principle is more fundamental to the judiciary's proper role in our system of government than the constitutional limitation of federal-court jurisdiction to actual cases or controversies.")

So in the end, federalism and jurisdictional limitations would bar the Court from hearing the case.

  • Isn't the state supreme court free to interpret the state's 4th amendment differently than how the federal 4th is interpreted by the federal courts, even if the wording is identical?
    – D M
    Oct 20, 2018 at 18:30
  • @DM It can be interpreted differently, but many states generally interpret their constitutional provisions to provide exactly the protection provided by the federal constitution. In those states, "SCOTUS said the 4th Amendment doesn't ban X" is a valid argument that the state constitution doesn't ban X either. If a state court wants to interpret their constitutional provision differently from the way SCOTUS interprets the federal constitution, they'll generally make that explicit. If they didn't do it before SCOTUS heard the case, they could always do it on remand.
    – cpast
    Oct 20, 2018 at 20:38
  • Yep, it is free to do that.
    – bdb484
    Oct 20, 2018 at 21:28

Can the US Supreme Court hear an appeal from State Supreme Court w/o a federal question?

Yes, it can. But it does so only when they feel like it. By "they" I mean the "Justices" or their staff attorneys on whom they delegate the job.

U.S. Supreme Court Rule 10 has the clause that, although rare, a petition for writ of certiorari can be granted "when the asserted error consists of erroneous factual findings or the misapplication of a properly stated rule of law". That premise involves no jurisdictional qualifier or restriction.

Rule 10 highlights its vague and discretionary nature (as opposed to jurisdictional constraints) with language such as "although neither controlling nor fully measuring the Court's discretion".

I understand the point about their inability to reinterpret state law already interpreted by state courts.

I would not be sure about that inability. First, the clause of Equal Protection of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. constitution is present in many (if not all) the states. Thus, where state courts' interpretation of state legislation depends on who the parties are, there is a compelling need for SCOTUS's exercise of its supervisory power.

And second, a state court can (and does) switch its interpretation of state laws. The inconsistencies that that switching triggers with respect to federal case law reinforces the need for the SCOTUS to review the matter.

One example is Michigan MCL 408.481(1). When federal district court decided Stubl v. T.A. Systems, Inc., 984 F.Supp. 1075 (1997), Michigan case law was that the term "may" in MCL 408.481 was permissive rather than mandatory (the conclusion was that a plaintiff is not required to exhaust administrative remedies prior to filing suit). Federal judge Rosen agreed, and even stated (Stubl at 1093) that

Though the Court understands that in extraordinary circumstances the word "may" is interpreted to mean "shall," the Court finds no such circumstance in this Michigan statute.

Plain English. But three years later, another Michigan appellate panel had a change of mood (or who knows? maybe illegitimate incentives, but let's not speculate) and concluded in Cork v. Applebee's of Mich., Inc., 239 Mich.App. 311; 608 N.W.2d 62, 65 (2000) that "may" means mandatory in that statute.

That is, in the Cork panel's mind, the panels from previous Michigan case law and federal judge Rosen had no idea what they were talking about when analyzing MCL 408.481. The result is that the exact same Michigan statute can mean one thing today and the opposite tomorrow.

This erraticism by Michigan judges should prompt the SCOTUS to remind judges of the distinction between permissive "may" and mandatory "shall", just as it did in United States v. Rodgers, 461 U.S. 677, 706 (1983).

On page 37 of my Petition for Writ of Certiorari, my arguments compel the SCOTUS to renewedly make that reminder of plain English. But this time the SCOTUS preferred to look the other way and single-handedly denied my petition (some lawyers and maybe law academics here in SE rush to defend the judiciary from my denouncements of it, but this is a clear example of judges' arbitrariness and why I do not partake in the game of praising the "judicial" system).

  • 1
    This answer is incorrect in many ways. You may want to read more about Article III limitations on jurisdiction, the definition of a "federal question," and the Erie Doctrine.
    – bdb484
    Oct 20, 2018 at 15:45
  • 2
    @IñakiViggers It seems like you're misinterpreting that last sentence of rule 10. When it says "A petition for a writ of certiorari is rarely granted when the asserted error consists of erroneous factual findings or the misapplication of a properly stated rule of law", it's merely stating that such petitions are unlikely to be granted; it's not providing a new category of petitions that can be granted regardless of jurisdictional issues.
    – D M
    Oct 20, 2018 at 18:41
  • 2
    And, of course, if a party is pleading a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, then there is a federal question, even if we're dealing with a state law.
    – D M
    Oct 20, 2018 at 18:43
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    @IñakiViggers (1) The Fourth Amendment and Equal Protection analyses are completely different. Yours creates a federal question; mine eliminates one. (2) Article III does deprive SCOTUS of jurisdiction, at least in the absence of a case or controversy. (3) You do, in fact, dispute the Erie doctrine: (a) you suggest that SCOTUS may "reinterpret state law already interpreted by state courts"; and (b) you want federal courts to ignore state-court interpretations of MCL 408.481. That's exactly what Erie forbids. As I said, you may want to do some more reading before more writing.
    – bdb484
    Oct 20, 2018 at 20:31
  • 1
    @IñakiViggers I agree that it's kind of weird to call something a "rule" when it is "neither controlling nor fully measuring the Court's discretion".
    – D M
    Oct 20, 2018 at 21:09

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