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I was inspired to ask this question after noticing that Robinson v. California was an appeal from a state appellate court directly to the Supreme Court. Thus the Supreme Court “skipped over” the Supreme Court of California when granting this writ. I do not have access to the case history, but I assume the Supreme Court of California denied discretionary review.

Has there ever been an instance of the Supreme Court hearing an appeal directly from a state district court?

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    It has authority to do so under the All Writs Act, but I'm not sure that it has ever done so and it isn't easy to search in that way. – ohwilleke Jan 20 at 23:13
  • @User37849012643 no. I changed the question title to clarify. I am seeking to know if there has ever been a direct appeal to the Supreme Court from a state court of first instance. – Viktor Jan 21 at 1:32
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There has never been a right to appeal directly, or discretionarily form a state trial court to SCOTUS. But, one can apply for a common law writ in SCOTUS with respect to a state trial court actions under the All Writs Act which is functionally an appeal, even though it is technically an original SCOTUS proceeding. But, original SCOTUS writs are extremely rare and I don't know if it has ever been used in the manner you describe. If so, it probably happened before the intermediate federal courts of appeal were created in the late 1800s.

It isn't easy to do a search of cases to determine the answer.

UPDATE WITH CORRECTION:

After further consideration, I think that I have a better idea of what the question was getting at and want to elaborate on that.

Most state courts (Utah, Texas and Oklahoma are exceptions to the general rule[1]), have either an intermediate court of appeal and then a state supreme court (sometimes given a different name such as "Court of Appeals" in New York State, in which the Supreme Court is the name of the trial court of general jurisdiction and the intermediate appeals court), or only a state supreme court from which appeals lie directly to the state supreme court.

[1] In Utah there is an appeal of right in every civil case to the state supreme court and the intermediate court of appeals considers cases that it "kicks down" to the court of appeals rather than dealing with itself. In Texas and Oklahoma, there is a Court of Criminal Appeals in addition to the State Supreme Court, which operates much like a Supreme Court in criminal cases with the state supreme court that is nominally superior only rarely intervening in criminal cases (I don't know when precisely it can intervene in those states).

In every state with an intermediate appeals court, there is an appeal of right to an intermediate appeals court which must be considered on the merits, and then a discretionary appeal to the state supreme court.

Sometimes in these states there are a handful of exceptions. For example, in Colorado, there is a direct appeal of right to the state supreme court in death penalty and water law cases, and in municipal court and limited jurisdiction court cases (i.e. cases in courts limited to $25,000 in controversy or less), there is an appeal of right to what would usually be the general jurisdiction trial court and then a discretionary appeal from there to the state supreme court). But, there is still almost always one court to which there is a direct appeal of right.

There are a small but non-negligible number of cases where what is usually a general jurisdiction trial court serves as an intermediate court of appeals of right for a lower trial court (e.g. a small claims court or municipal court), with appeal from there only in the discretion of the state supreme court. Those cases can and very rarely (but sometimes) do go on to be considered by the U.S. Supreme Court when a state supreme court denies discretionary review (in addition to being rare, few such cases are significant enough to justify the effort on the part of the parties to do so and are considered significant by the U.S. Supreme Court too), just as they would when an intermediate court of appeals rules and a state supreme court denies certiorari at the state level. But, in that case, the direct appeal still isn't a direct appeal of a "court of first instance" (i.e. a court where the original trial on the merits is held).

But, there is no constitutional right to a direct appeal of right (there is only a constitutional right to a collateral attack via habeas corpus in criminal cases resulting in incarceration). The right to a direct appeal in state courts is a product of state law and state constitutions (in the federal courts it is a consequence of federal statutes).

In some states without an intermediate court of appeals, there is also an appeal of right to the state supreme court. But, in other states without an intermediate court of appeals, appeals to the state supreme court are discretionary (much like appeals to the state supreme court from an intermediate appellate court and appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court).

Thus, if you are in a state in which there is only a discretionary appeal to the state supreme court, and the state supreme court declines to consider your appeal on the merits, you can appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court once the state supreme court has declined your state level petition for certiorari.

The actual pre-requisite at the state level in a direct appeal is that your state direct appellate options be exhausted. So, if you are in a state without intermediate courts of appeal in which the state supreme court reviews trial court decisions on only a discretionary basis, then you can make a direct appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court if you have sought review on direct appeal in the state supreme court and it declined to grant certiorari to review your case on the merits.

In practice, this is still very rare. States without intermediate appellate courts are universally small in population and hence have small case loads. Most states with only a single supreme court still have at least one direct appeal of right and have had that right for most of their history. And, state supreme courts usually do exercise their certiorari power in cases that are worthy of discretionary consideration in the U.S. Supreme Court. But, in this narrow situation, the U.S. Supreme Court may consider a trial court decision on a direct appeal, without it ever having been considered on the merits at the state level.

This happens rarely (although the U.S. Supreme Court not infrequently, i.e. perhaps a couple of times a year, considers a case upon which there has been an intermediate direct appeal and a state supreme court has refused discretionary review), but it has almost certainly happened sometime. It is hard to devise a legal research search that would locate such a case, however, and strictly speaking, the denial of certiorari can be seen as a state supreme court ruling that is required in almost every case.

  • Thanks for the update! I really enjoyed learning more about this! – Viktor Feb 2 at 23:01

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