Cert pool

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The cert pool is a mechanism by which the U.S. Supreme Court manages the influx of petitions for certiorari ("cert") to the court. It was instituted in 1973, as one of the institutional reforms of Chief Justice Warren E. Burger.

Purpose and operation[edit]

Each year, the Supreme Court receives thousands of petitions for certiorari; in 2001 the number stood at approximately 7,500,[1] and had risen to 8,241 by October Term 2007.[2] The Court will ultimately grant approximately 80 to 100 of these petitions,[3] in accordance with the rule of four. The workload of the court would make it difficult for each Justice to read each petition; instead, in days gone by, each Justice's law clerks would read the petitions and surrounding materials, and provide a short summary of the case, including a recommendation as to whether the Justice should vote to hear the case.

This situation changed in the early 1970s, at the instigation of Chief Justice Warren E. Burger. In Burger's view, particularly in light of the increasing caseload, it was redundant to have nine separate memoranda prepared for each petition and thus (over objections from Justice William Brennan) Burger and Associate Justices Lewis Powell, Byron White, Harry Blackmun and William Rehnquist created the cert pool.[4] Today, all Justices except Justice Samuel Alito participate in the cert pool.[5] Justice Alito withdrew from the pool procedure late in 2008.[6]

The operation of the cert pool is as follows: Each participating Justice places his or her clerks in the pool. A copy of each petition received by the Court goes to the pool, is assigned to a random clerk from the pool, and that clerk then prepares and circulates a memo for all of the Justices participating in the pool. The writing law clerk may ask his or her Justice to call for a response to the petition, or any Justice may call for a response after the petition is circulated.[7]

It tends to fall to the Chief Justice to "maintain" the pool when its workings go awry. Chief Justice Rehnquist chastised clerks for a number of practices, including memos that were tardy, too long, biased, left in unsecure locations, or swapped between chambers.[8][9]


The cert pool remedies several problems, but creates others.

  • Memos prepared for an audience of nine (or however many justices participate in the pool) cannot be as candid as private communications within chambers;[why?] moreover, they must be written in far more general terms.[why?]
  • The fate of a petition may be disproportionately affected by which chambers' clerk writes the pool memo. Certain types of petitions may be more likely to succeed in the hands of more conservative or liberal clerks.[10]
  • Prof. Douglas A. Berman has argued that the cert pool substantially weights the preponderance of capital cases on the court's docket.[11][clarification needed]
  • Lyle Denniston of SCOTUSblog has argued that the cert pool is partially responsible for the Court's shrunken (by historical standards) docket.[12]

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, Remarks at University of Guanajuato, Mexico, 2001-9-27; see also, Booknotes, 1998-6-14 (transcript).
  2. ^ Caperton v. Massey Coal, 556 U.S. __, __ (Roberts, C.J., dissenting) (slip op. at 11).
  3. ^ See Procedures of the Supreme Court of the United States#Selection of cases.
  4. ^ It is possible that Burger took inspiration for the cert pool from the manner in which the Court had been handling in forma pauperis petitions. From the tenure of Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes until at least Burger's arrival, IFP petitions would go not to all chambers, but to the Chief Justice's chambers only, where the Chief's clerks would prepare a memo circulated to all other chambers, in a very similar manner to the cert pool's operation. [13]
  5. ^ A. Liptak, [14], New York Times, 09/25/08; T. Mauro, Roberts Dips Toe Into Cert Pool, Law.com, 2005-10-21; T. Mauro via The Standdown Texas Project [15], The Standdown Texas Project, 2009-09-22.
  6. ^ Liptak, Adam (2008-09-25). "A Second Justice Opts Out of a Longtime Custom: The 'Cert. Pool'". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-09-29. 
  7. ^ Thompson, David C.; Wachtell, Melanie F. (2009), "An Empirical Analysis of Supreme Court Certiorari Petition Procedures", George Mason University Law Review, 16 (2): 237, 241, SSRN 1377522Freely accessible 
  8. ^ T. Mauro (June 1, 2004). "Rehnquist's Olive Branch Too Late?". Law.com. ALM Properties, Inc. Archived from the original on 2004-06-04. 
  9. ^ L. Greenhouse, How Not to be Chief Justice, 154 U. Penn. L. Rev 1365 at 1370
  10. ^ Peñalver, Eduardo (August 2, 2005). "Roberts' Cert Pool Memos". ThinkProgress. Supreme Court Extra. American Progress Action Fund. Archived from the original on September 14, 2007. 
  11. ^ Berman, Douglas A. (2005-08-11). "Roberts, the cert pool, and sentencing jurisprudence". Sentencing Law and Policy. Retrieved 2008-10-30. 
  12. ^ Denniston, Lyle (2005-10-21). "Commentary: The Court's caseload". SCOTUSblog. Archived from the original on 2008-07-14. Retrieved 2008-10-30.