Generally, the state supreme court is exclusively for hearing appeals of legal issues. It does not make any finding of facts, and thus holds no trials. In the rare case where the trial court made an egregious error in its finding of facts, the state supreme court will remand to the trial court for a new trial. This responsibility of correcting the errors of inferior courts has resulted in a variety of names for state supreme courts.
The court consists of a panel of judges selected by methods outlined in the state constitution.
Federal courts may only overrule a state court when there is a federal question, which is to say, a specific issue (such as consistency with the Federal Constitution) that gives rise to federal jurisdiction. Rulings of state supreme courts on such matters may be appealed directly to the Supreme Court of the United States.
One of the informal traditions of the American legal system is that all litigants are guaranteed at least one appeal after a final judgment on the merits. However, appeal is merely a privilege provided by statute in 47 states and in federal judicial proceedings; the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that there is no federal constitutional right to an appeal.
Since a few states lack intermediate appellate courts, the state supreme court operates under "mandatory review", in which it must hear all appeals from the trial courts. Such judicial systems are usually very congested.
Most state supreme courts have implemented "discretionary review," like their federal counterpart. Under such a system, intermediate appellate courts are entrusted with deciding the vast majority of appeals. For certain limited categories of cases, the state supreme court still operates under mandatory review, usually with regard to cases involving the interpretation of the state constitution or capital punishment. But for the vast majority, the state supreme court possesses the discretion to grant certiorari (known as review in states that discourage the use of Latin). These cases usually pertain to issues which different appellate courts within its jurisdiction have decided differently, or highly controversial cases involving a completely new legal issue never seen in that state.
Iowa has a unique procedure for appeals. In that state, all appeals are filed with the Supreme Court, which then keeps all cases of first impression for itself to decide. It forwards the remaining cases — which deal with points of law it has already addressed — to the intermediate Court of Appeals.
Other states' supreme courts have used the term "Appeals": New Jersey's supreme courts under the 1844 constitution and Delaware's supreme court were both the "Court of Errors and Appeals"; The term "Errors" refers to the now-obsolete writ of error, which was used by state supreme courts to correct certain types of egregious errors committed by lower courts.
Massachusetts and New Hampshire originally named their highest courts the "Superior Court of Judicature." Currently, Massachusetts used the names "Supreme Judicial Court" (to distinguish itself from the state legislature, which is called the Massachusetts General Court), while New Hampshire uses the name "Supreme Court." Additionally the highest court in Maine is named the "Supreme Judicial Court." In Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, and New York, the highest courts formerly used variations of the term "Court of Errors," which indicated that the court's primary purpose was to correct the errors of lower courts.
The Federal territories of Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico all empower the executive to appoint their judges. In the case of American Samoa, however, the executive is the United States Secretary of the Interior, not the local governor.