Supreme Court Rules, Practices, and Traditions
What is the importance of circuit splits?
Even experienced Court observers warn there is no way to predict with great accuracy when the U.S. Supreme Court will agree to hear a case. However, one of the best predictors is when a case presents an issue that divides the lower federal appeals courts. This is called a circuit split. Rule 10(a) of the Rules of the Supreme Court identifies as an important consideration when a federal appeals court decision conflicts with another federal appeals court decision.
For example, in 2005 the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case of Cutter v. Wilkinson to determine the constitutionality of a federal law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The high court agreed to hear this case in part because the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled the act violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Several other circuits, including the Fourth, Seventh, and Ninth, had ruled that RLUIPA did not violate the Establishment Clause. The U.S. Supreme Court took the case to resolve the circuit split on the constitutionality of this federal law, which it did by upholding the law.