Glossary - U.S. v. Alvarez
A plurality opinion is an appellate opinion without enough judges' votes to constitute a majority of the court. The plurality opinion is the opinion that received the greatest number of votes of any of the opinions filed.
Because a majority could not reach a common view, a plurality opinion is not binding. It has precedential value in terms of the ruling. However, the rationale may be referred to in subsequent cases, but it does not have the same precedential authority as an opinion written by a majority of the Court.
An appeal is available if a party is dissatisfied with the outcome at the trial level. Common reasons for an appeal include claims that the trial proceedings were unfair or that the trial judge incorrectly applied the law.
The Purpose of Appellate Courts
The appellate courts do not retry cases or hear new evidence. They review the trial court record to make sure that the proper law was applied and that the proceedings were fair.
Appellant v. Appellee
The party seeking an appeal (in this case, the government) is called an appellant or petitioner. The responding party (in this case, Alvarez) is known as an appellee or respondent. Each side presents written arguments, called briefs, to the appellate court. Others interested in the case may seek permission to file an amicus curia (friend of the court) brief.
Getting to the Supreme Court
Parties who are not satisfied with the decision of a lower court must petition the Supreme Court of the United States to hear their case. Parties ask the Court to grant a writ of certiorari, which means that the Supreme Court orders a lower court to send the record of the case for its review. The Supreme Court usually is not under any obligation to hear these cases, and it usually only does so if the case could have national significance, might harmonize conflicting decisions in the federal Circuit courts, and/or might set a precedent for other courts to follow.
According to the Supreme Court's rules, four of the nine Justices must vote to accept a case. The Court accepts 100-150 of the more than 7,000 cases that it is asked to review each year. If the Justices decide to accept a case (grant certiorari or grant cert), the case is scheduled on the docket. According to the Supreme Courts rules, the petitioner has a certain amount of time to write a brief, putting forth the arguments on the issue(s) before the Court. After the petitioner's brief has been filed, the respondent is given a certain amount of time to file a brief. Briefs may not exceed 50 pages.