US Supreme Court Filing Guides for Indigent Petitioners

The Supreme Court's guide for prospective indigent petitioners for writs of certiorari helps low-income parties navigate the process of obtaining Supreme Court review of their case when they don't have an attorney. Someone in these circumstances is said to be proceeding in forma pauperis (IFP). Keep in mind that the U.S. Supreme Court takes up cases at its discretion. The justices are focused on settling broad legal issues, not addressing errors made by lower courts. 

Below, you'll find a few of the most important Supreme Court rules to know for an IFP filing.

Petitioning for Certiorari (Rules 10-14)

As noted above, review by the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) is a matter of discretion. In some cases, like a criminal conviction, a person gets an appeal to a higher court automatically. SCOTUS is different.

According to Supreme Court Rule 10, some of the reasons the Court might choose to review a case include:

"(a) A United States court of appeals has entered a decision in conflict with the decision of another United States court of appeals on the same important matter; has decided an important federal question in a way that conflicts with a decision by a state court of last resort; or has so far departed from the accepted and usual course of judicial proceedings, or sanctioned such a departure by a lower court, as to call for an exercise of this Court’s supervisory power;

"(b) A state court of last resort has decided an important federal question in a way that conflicts with the decision of another state court of last resort or of a United States court of appeals;

"(c) A state court or a United States court of appeals has decided an important question of federal law that has not been, but should be, settled by this Court, or has decided an important federal question in a way that conflicts with relevant decisions of this Court. A petition for a writ of certiorari is rarely granted when the asserted error consists of erroneous factual findings or the misapplication of a properly stated rule of law." 

Under Rule 11, the Supreme Court generally will not take a case that is currently under review by a federal court of appeals. 

Rule 12 outlines some of the logistics of filing with the Court. Those proceeding IFP generally must file their original petition plus ten copies. But, someone who is incarcerated only needs to file their original petition. 

Rule 13 requires petitions to the Supreme Court to be filed within 90 days of a judgment by a lower court. 

Rule 14 lays out the content needed in your petition, which includes:

  • The questions presented for review
  • A list of all the parties in the case
  • A list of all proceedings in lower courts
  • The laws or constitutional provisions at issue in the case
  • A short statement of the facts of the case

Proceeding in forma pauperis (Rule 39)

Under 28 U.S.C. 1915, any federal court in the U.S. can authorize a person to file a lawsuit or appeal without paying the usual filing fees. In many cases, someone files in forma pauperis because they are in prison following a criminal conviction. Under Supreme Court Rule 39, a person seeking review of their case IFP must file a motion with the Court. This motion will include information like:

  • Whether they asked to proceed in forma pauperis with a different court, and if so, whether the court granted it
  • Whether the lower court appointed an attorney to the case

If the Supreme Court grants a person's petition for certiorari, it may also appoint an attorney to help (if the petitioner cannot afford one). 

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