Particular State Courts

The U.S. Supreme Court has the power to review final judgments or decrees rendered by the highest court of a State where a federal question is involved[i]  Pursuant to the federal jurisdictional statute, final judgments or decrees rendered by the highest court of a state in which a decision could be had, may be reviewed by the Supreme Court.[ii]

A department or division of highest state court is not considered the highest court in which relief could be had for purposes of further review in the U.S. Supreme Court.[iii]  In Gorman v. Washington University, 316 U.S. 98 (U.S. 1942), the court held that a decision rendered by the division of highest state court is not considered to be rendered by the highest court of a state because the decision and judgment rendered by the division could be set aside by the state supreme court sitting en banc.

However, in Local 174, Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen & Helpers of Am. v. Lucas Flour Co., 369 U.S. 95 (U.S. 1962), the court held that a judgment rendered by a department of highest state court is reviewable in the U.S. Supreme Court if a rehearing en banc before the highest state court is not granted.  The court observed that the decision of a department becomes a final judgment of the highest state court unless within a specified time a petition for rehearing has been filed or a rehearing has been ordered on the court’s own initiative.  If the department of the highest state court consists of at least an absolute majority of the court, and the decision in the case is unanimous, then the decision is considered the final word of the state’s highest court.[iv]

To ascertain substantive state law in a diversity action, a federal court looks first to the governing state’s highest court and then to its intermediate appellate courts.[v]  If the state’s highest court has not directly addressed a particular question of state law, a decision of an intermediate state appellate court on that question is binding in a diversity action in the federal court.

A federal court can depart from an intermediate court’s fully reasoned holding as to state law only if convinced that the state’s highest court would not follow that holding.[vi]  An intermediate state appellate court is the highest court of the state in which a decision can be had if there is no appeal to a higher state court.[vii]  Similarly, an intermediate state appellate court becomes the highest court of the state when the higher state court refused to take the case on appeal for want of jurisdiction.[viii]

In R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. Durham County, 479 U.S. 130 (U.S. 1986), the court held that the U.S. Supreme Court will dismiss for want of jurisdiction an appeal from a state intermediate court of appeals, where:

  • the intermediate court upheld the validity of a state statute;
  • the state supreme court has granted a motion to dismiss the resulting appeal for lack of a substantial federal question;
  • the U.S. Supreme Court determines that an appeal will lie from the judgment of the state supreme court, and not from the judgment of the intermediate court.

Where the highest court of the state has declared that the action of the trial court cannot be reviewed by any appellate court, then a state trial court becomes the highest court of the state in which a decision on the federal question could be had.[ix]

When state trial court becomes the highest court of the state, then review may be directly sought in the U.S. Supreme Court.[x]  Further, if a decision of a trial court cannot be further appealed, state trial court becomes the highest court of the state.[xi]

In Virginian R. Co. v. Mullens, 271 U.S. 220 (U.S. 1926), the court held that when the Supreme Court denies a petition for appeal, then the decision of the trial court becomes the decision of the highest court of the state in which a decision could be had.

An action by an individual judge sitting in chambers may be directly reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court if it appears that the judge has acted as a judicial tribunal having jurisdiction over the matter.  In Betts v. Brady, 316 U.S. 455 (U.S. 1942), the court held that a single judge of an appellate court before whom a hearing is had, in accordance with the jurisdiction conferred and the procedure prescribed by the state statute is a highest court of a state providing for the review by the S.C. of decisions of the highest court of a state, where a Federal question is involved.

An administrative agency is a legislative body having discretion to pass ordinances and the court will not interfere with its legislative discretion.[xii]  Similarly, a court will not substitute its judgment for that of the legislative body charged with the primary duty and responsibility of determining the question.[xiii]

In Olney v. Arnold, 3 U.S. 308 (U.S. 1796), the court held that even though a legislative body has the power to set aside decisions of the state’s highest court, a legislative body is not considered to be the highest court of a state since the  powers of a legislature and of a court are different.

[i] Howell v. Mississippi, 543 U.S. 440 (U.S. 2005)

[ii] 28 USCS § 1257

[iii] Gorman v. Washington University, 316 U.S. 98 (U.S. 1942)

[iv] Local 174, Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen & Helpers of Am. v. Lucas Flour Co., 369 U.S. 95 (U.S. 1962)

[v] Lund v. Chemical Bank, 1990 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 1679 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 16, 1990)

[vi] Assicurazioni Generali, S.p.A. v. Neil, 160 F.3d 997 (4th Cir. Md. 1998)

[vii] Tucker v. Texas, 326 U.S. 517 (U.S. 1946)

[viii] Randall v. Board of Comm’rs, 261 U.S. 252, 253 (U.S. 1923)

[ix] Kentucky v. Powers, 201 U.S. 1 (U.S. 1906)

[x] id

[xi] Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649 (U.S. 1944)

[xii] Hawes v. Contra Costa Water Co., 11 F. Cas. 862, 865 (C.C.S.D. Cal. 1878)

[xiii] Gant v. Oklahoma City, 289 U.S. 98 (U.S. 1933)


Inside Particular State Courts