Finality of decision Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Under the law, the Supreme Court may review final decisions made by the highest court available to a petitioner in a state if a decision is sought in matters involving federal laws.

Title 28, section 1257, of the U.S. Code gives the Supreme Court jurisdiction to review final decisions or judgments made by the highest court of a state. Such reviews are permitted when the legitimacy of a federal law is questioned, when a state law is questioned as being inimical to a federal statute, or when a claim is filed under a federal law.

The Constitution does not specifically grant the Court authority to review decisions of state courts. This authority is generally assumed although it has never been precisely spelled out. It certainly is not usual, as Charles Alan Wright has written, “for the court of one sovereign to have appellate jurisdiction over the courts of other sovereigns, but federalism is or was when the Constitution was adopted an unusual system, and the supremacy clause is a sufficient basis on which to rest the appellate jurisdiction over state court decisions.” It must be remembered that when the Constitution was being drafted, the form of government for which it was designed was experimental.

The Code’s Mandates

In order to conform to the mandates of section 1257 of the U.S. Code, the decision of a state court must be final in two specific ways. First, such a decision must not be subject to review by any other state court; the court rendering the final verdict must be as far as the case can be appealed within that state’s jurisdiction. Second, the Court, in Catlin v. United States[case]Catlin v. United States[Catlin v. United States] (1945), declared a judgment or decree to be functionally final if it “ends the litigation on the merits and leaves nothing for the court to do but execute the judgment.”

An example of the first instance occurs in Thompson v. City of Louisville[case]Thompson v. City of Louisville[Thompson v. City of Louisville] (1960). In this case, the Court considered a decision made by the police court of Louisville, Kentucky, under whose rules that case could be reviewed no further within the state. The only additional remedy available to the defendant was through the Supreme Court.

The question of finality is determined by how section 1257 is interpreted. The Court has permitted some latitude in this matter, sometimes deciding on practical grounds to consider some types of judgments sufficiently final to warrant further review by the Court.

Section 25 of the Judiciary Act

In the quarter century between 1790 and 1815, the Court reviewed and rendered decisions in seventeen cases that had been adjudicated by state courts. Section 25Judiciary Act of 1789;section 25 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 authorized such reviews if a state court decision contradicted and nullified a federal statute or treaty or ruled against a claim that had been based on federal law. In other words, federal law was considered superior to all other laws in cases involving it.

It was not until 1816 that this concept was challenged. In that year, the court of appeals of Virginia refused to accept an opinion of the Supreme Court, declaring section 25 unconstitutional. In the Court hearing that followed, Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee[case]Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee[Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee] (1816), the Court denied Virginia’s accusations in an opinion written by Joseph Story, who categorically declared section 25 to be within the bounds of the Constitution. A further challenge to the constitutionality of section 25 occurred in the case of Cohens v. Virginia[case]Cohens v. Virginia[Cohens v. Virginia] (1821). John Marshall wrote the opinion in this case, upholding the constitutionality of section 25 and the authority of the Court to review and, if appropriate based on the evidence, to reverse the final decisions of a state’s highest court in matters involving federal law.

A much later challenge to section 25 came in Ableman v. Booth[case]Ableman v. Booth[Ableman v. Booth] (1859), a decision that sustained the highly controversial Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 shortly before the beginning of the Civil War. In this instance, Roger Brooke Taney reaffirmed the earlier opinions of justices Story and Marshall, holding that section 25 was, indeed, constitutional.

State Versus Federal Supremacy

Supremacy, federal The question of finality is fundamentally intertwined with the matter of judicial efficiency and of the federalist philosophy that undergirds the U.S. system of justice. The Court is placed in the position of having to balance two opposing forces. On one hand, it must demonstrate that it respects the sovereignty of state courts. On the other, it often is called on to reconsider the boundaries between the judicial sovereignty of the states and federal supremacy in the matters that come before it.

Perhaps the best succinct overview of the question of finality is that of William O. Douglas in the case of North Dakota State Board of Pharmacy v. Snyder’s Drug Stores[case]North Dakota State Board of Pharmacy v. Snyder’s Drug Stores[North Dakota State Board of Pharmacy v. Snyder’s Drug Stores] (1973). Douglas pointed out that the requirement of finality prevents the piecemeal review of decisions made by state courts. Further, it protects the Court from offering advisory opinions in cases that are not legitimate in terms of Article III of the Constitution. Finally, it limits intrusion of the federal government in the affairs of the individual states.

Further Reading
  • Spaeth, Harold J. Studies in U.S. Supreme Court Behavior. New York: Garland, 1990.
  • Stern, Robert L., Eugene Gressman, and Stephen M. Shapiro. Supreme Court Practice: Jurisdiction, Procedures, Arguing and Briefing Techniques, Terms, Statutes. 6th ed. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of National Affairs, 1986.
  • Wright, Charles Alan. The Law of Federal Courts. 5th ed. St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing, 1994.

Cohens v. Virginia

Douglas, William O.

Judiciary Act of 1789

Marshall, John

Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee

States’ rights and state sovereignty

Story, Joseph

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