A Glossary of Important SCOTUS Terminology

Writing about the Supreme Court necessitates using terms that are familiar mostly to lawyers and those who follow the court closely. We’re providing this glossary as a resource.

OT19 (pronounced “O-T-Nineteen”): This stands for October Term 19, which is how lawyers and judges refer to a given year at the court. It’s the same idea as referring to a fiscal year in accounting. And for those West Wing fans, the court starts the term on the first Monday in October—the Red Mass is held on the Sunday immediately preceding it. 

Cert (pronounced “sert” like the second syllable of assert): This is shorthand for certiorari, which is too annoying to pronounce in its entirety for most lawyers and even the justices can’t agree on how to say it. It is Middle English from Latin for “to be informed of.” The Supreme Court has almost complete discretion over which cases it chooses to hear (except cases over which it has original jurisdiction like interstate water disputes or in the rare instance in which Congress has created a direct appeal like redistricting). After a case is decided by a lower appellate court, a party can ask for the Supreme Court to review the decision with a petition for a writ of certiorari. (Technically, the court can take a case before that—called certiorari before judgment—as it did in the census case in 2019.) 

The Supreme Court receives about 7,000 of these per year and hears about 75 cases a term (go back just a few decades and that number was double). It takes four justices to agree to take a case, which generally means that any case the court decides to hear has at least four justices who would consider overturning the lower court’s decision—and in fact about two-thirds of the time that’s what they do. 

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