The Lottery Docket

53 Pages Posted: 7 Mar 2017 Last revised: 9 May 2018

See all articles by Daniel Epps

Daniel Epps

Washington University in St. Louis - School of Law

William Ortman

Wayne State University School of Law

Date Written: April 10, 2018


We propose supplementing the Supreme Court’s caseload with a “lottery docket” of cases selected at random from final judgments of the circuit courts. The Court currently possesses almost unfettered authority to set its own agenda through its certiorari jurisdiction. By rule and custom, the Court exercises that discretion by selecting cases that it sees as important, in a narrow sense of that term. The Court’s free hand in agenda setting has obvious benefits, but it has drawbacks as well. It deprives the Court of critical information about how the law operates in ordinary cases. It signals to circuit courts that their decisions are unreviewable—and thus unaccountable—in unimportant cases. And it passes over many cases that are important in a less narrow sense. The Court uses the existence of a circuit split to identify cases as important, but splits are merely proxies for, not measures of, importance. While many issues selected through the certiorari process are important, not all important issues are selected by certiorari.

More fundamentally, we question the premise that only “important” cases deserve the Court’s attention. The legal system would be improved if every Term, the Supreme Court were forced to decide some unquestionably unim- portant cases—run-of-the-mill appeals dealing with the kinds of legal questions that the lower courts resolve every day. Over the long run, a lottery docket would offset the pathologies of the certiorari system without depriving the Court of its ability to resolve questions that have divided the lower courts.

Keywords: Supreme Court, Certiorari, Lottery, Case Selection, Random

JEL Classification: K41

Suggested Citation

Epps, Daniel and Ortman, William, The Lottery Docket (April 10, 2018). Michigan Law Review, Vol. 116, pp. 705–757, 2018, Washington University in St. Louis Legal Studies Research Paper No. 17-03-05, Available at SSRN:

Daniel Epps (Contact Author)

Washington University in St. Louis - School of Law ( email )

Anheuser-Busch Hall 573
1 Brookings Drive, Campus Box 1120
St. Louis, MO 63130
United States
(314) 935-3532 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://

William Ortman

Wayne State University School of Law ( email )

471 Palmer
Detroit, MI 48202
United States

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