Rather than originating from a federal court of appeals like the majority of cases before the Supreme Court, the most discussed case of this term came from a state court. Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission was petitioned to the Supreme Court after a decision from the Colorado Court of Appeals, and Colorado’s solicitor general, Frederick Yarger, handled the argument for the respondent, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission.
As the highest court in the land, the Supreme Court is the only appellate court to hear cases from both state and federal courts. This term, the court heard arguments in seven other cases along with Masterpiece Cakeshop in which the court below was a state court. [The following links for these cases are to the lower-court opinions: Cyan Inc. v. Beaver County Employees Retirement Fund, Masterpiece Cakeshop, Artis v. District of Columbia, Collins v. Virginia, Currier v. Virginia, McCoy v. Lousiana, Upper Skagit Indian Tribe v. Lundgren and South Dakota v. Wayfair.] Aside from cases that start in state courts, many other cases, like the recently decided Murphy v. National Collegiate Athletic Association, have vast implications for the states and state laws. Because many of the court’s most well-known cases come from federal courts of appeals, however, cases in which states are involved or that come from state courts can be overlooked. These cases play an incredibly important role in the Supreme Court’s annual docket and the decisions often have vast implications for state populations as well as for the nation as a whole.
What types of issues arise in state-court cases that are later brought before the Supreme Court? To begin by examining a slice of these cases, the court regularly reviews state courts’ death sentences. Along with the continuous stream of stay applications and other emergency motions the court receives, the court reviews a handful of state-court decisions in capital cases on the merits. Some of these decisions have drastically altered the practice of capital punishment nationwide, including the decision that halted the practice, Furman v. Georgia, and the one that reinstated it, Gregg v. Georgia. When we look at the capital-punishment cases the court has chosen to review on the merits since the beginning of the Warren court in 1953, cases from several states in particular take up a disproportionate share of the court’s 8th Amendment capital-punishment jurisprudence (according to the United States Supreme Court Database’s coding).
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Several recent high-profile death penalty decisions came from Florida, including the 2015 decision in Hurst v. Florida, which held Florida’s division of labor between judge and jury in capital cases unconstitutional. The court heard the second most cases from Texas, the state with the most executions over the past several decades.
State government attorneys
Cases involving state actors or beginning in state courts are not always easy to locate just by looking at a case’s title, especially when the party is an actor within a state. Although eight cases came to the Supreme Court from state courts this term, 21 state government attorneys, mainly solicitors general, argued before the Supreme Court. That is an increase from nine such cases last term and 20 in the 2015 term.
Several of these state attorneys are regular participants before the Supreme Court. Looking over the past three terms’ oral-argument data, the following state actors argued before the court:
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As is apparent above, the lion’s share of state-related cases over the past several terms originated in Texas and were argued by Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller. Previously mentioned Colorado Solicitor General Frederick Yarger, along with Ohio Solicitor General Eric Murphy, also argued a large number of cases in the Supreme Court between the 2015 and 2017 terms. This term, for instance, Eric Murphy argued in National Association of Manufacturers v. Department of Defense and Husted v. Randolph Institute, Scott Keller argued in Abbott v. Perez and Texas v. New Mexico and Colorado, and Frederick Yarger also argued in Texas v. New Mexico and Colorado as well as in Masterpiece Cakeshop.
State courts of last resort
Although state attorneys occasionally participate in cases that did not originate in state court, the bulk of state-government attorneys’ business in the Supreme Court began in state courts and was appealed/petitioned from a state court of last resort. When we look at the state courts whose decisions were reviewed by the Supreme Court since 1953, the most prevalent states tend to be the ones with the heaviest caseloads.
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The Supreme Court has heard many more cases that originated in California state courts and were appealed from the California Supreme Court or from a California court of appeals than cases from any other state’s courts. A large portion of these state cases also came from New York, Florida, Illinois and Texas, with only a scant number from less populated states like Wyoming, Rhode Island and Hawaii....