Can any lawyer argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court?
UPDATED: February 20, 2013
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Any U.S. lawyer who has been an active member of a state bar for three years and is currently in good standing with that state’s bar is eligible to apply for admission to the bar of the Supreme Court of the United States. Lawyers must fill out the application form and attach a certificate of good standing from a clerk or officer of the highest court in the state where the lawyer is admitted to the bar. This certificate verifies the lawyer’s membership with that state’s bar for the required three-year minimum period, as well as the applicant’s good standing. The application is considered current as long as the clerk’s certificate is no more than a year old. After that point, the application will be returned as being expired. For members of multiple state bars, only one state certificate of good standing is necessary.
In addition, the applicant must obtain the sponsorship of two current members of the bar of the Supreme Court of the United States. The sponsors must personally know the applicant but not be related to them by blood or marriage. These sponsors will vouch for the applicant’s qualifications and moral and professional character. Once the lawyer successfully completes these steps for admission, the Clerk of the Supreme Court will review the application and issue a certificate of admission to the bar of the Supreme Court of the United States, which carries with it the right to argue cases before the Supreme Court.
Still No Substitute for Experience
While admission to the bar of the Supreme Court is an accomplishment, actually having argued a case before the highest court in the land is a true distinction. On average, the current Supreme Court hears oral arguments in only 100 of the more than 7,000 cases each year for which it receives a petition for writ of certiorari (i.e. request to accept a case on appeal). As a result, the list of lawyers that actually argue a case before the Supreme Court is a short one, with experience and inside knowledge of the oral argument process being extremely important. Almost a third of all arguments made before the Supreme Court come from former United States Solicitor Generals or their staff – the office charged with representing the government in front of the Supreme Court.
Even seasoned trial lawyers might find themselves out of place arguing in front of the Supreme Court. The whole process can be quite intimidating, even for those lawyers who have been there before. A small group of Supreme Court specialists has even emerged – lawyers with major Supreme Court oral argument experience. These experienced lawyers will many times offer to argue cases before the Supreme Court that they previously had nothing to do with, simply because of the prestige factor and the honor of arguing an important case.
With the stakes being so high at the Supreme Court level, many appellants want the very best representation they can get – whether that is determined by what they can afford or what is offered to them. While any lawyer in good standing and with at least three years as a member of a state bar can be admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court, odds are that a specialist with years of experience working with the Supreme Court will argue most cases there. As in other aspects of legal practice, experience often carries the day.