Certiorari (pronunciation: \sər-sh(ē-)ə-ˈrer-ē, -ˈrär-ē, -ˈra-rē\) is a legal term in Roman, English and American law referring to a type of writ seeking judicial review. Certiorari ("to be searched") is the present, passive, infinitive of the Latin word certioro, a contraction of certiorem facere ("to search," lit. "to make certain").
United States Law
In the United States, certiorari is the writ that an appellate court issues to a lower court in order to review its judgment for legal error and review, where no appeal is available as a matter of right. Since the Judiciary Act of 1925, most cases cannot be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court as a matter of right; therefore, a party who wants that court to review a decision of a federal or state court files a "petition for writ of certiorari" in the Supreme Court. If the court grants the petition, the case is scheduled for the filing of briefs and for oral argument.
Four of the nine judges must vote to grant a writ of certiorari. This is called the "rule of four." The great majority of cases brought to the Supreme Court are denied certiorari (approximately 7,500 petitions are presented each year; between 80 and 150 are granted), because the Supreme Court is generally careful to choose only cases in which it has jurisdiction and which it considers sufficiently important to merit the use of its limited resources.
The granting of a writ does not necessarily mean the Supreme Court has found anything wrong with the decision of the lower court. Granting a writ of certiorari means merely that four judges feel the circumstances described in the petition are sufficient to warrant the full Court making a review of the case and of the lower court's action. Conversely, the legal effect of the Supreme Court's denial of a petition for a writ of certiorari is commonly misunderstood as meaning that the Supreme Court approves the decision of a lower court. However, such a denial "imports no expression of opinion upon the merits of the case, as the bar has been told many times."
Certiorari is sometimes informally referred to as cert, and cases warranting the Supreme Court's attention as certworthy. One situation where the Supreme Court sometimes grants certiorari is when the federal appeals courts in two (or more) federal judicial circuits have ruled different ways in similar situations, and the Supreme Court wants to resolve that "circuit split" about how the law is supposed to apply to that kind of situation. Issues of this type are often called "percolating issues."
Some state court systems use the same terminology, but in others, writ of review, leave to appeal, or certification for appeal is used in place of writ of certiorari as the name for discretionary review of a lower court's judgment. A handful of states lack intermediate appellate courts; their supreme courts operate under a mandatory review regime, in which the supreme court must take all appeals in order to preserve the loser's traditional right to one appeal. However, mandatory review remains in place, in all states where the death penalty exists; in those states, a sentence of death is automatically appealed to the state's highest court.
In the administrative law context, the common-law writ of certiorari was historically used by lower courts in the U.S. for judicial review of decisions made by an administrative agency after an adversarial hearing. Some states have retained this use of the writ of certiorari in state courts, while others have replaced it with statutory procedures. In the federal courts, this use of certiorari has been abolished and replaced by a civil action under the Administrative Procedure Act in a United States district court or in some circumstances a petition for review in a United States court of appeals.