Certified question
In the law of the United States
Law of the United States
The law of the United States consists of many levels of codified and uncodified forms of law, of which the most important is the United States Constitution, the foundation of the federal government of the United States...

, a certified question is a formal request by one court to one of its sister courts, usually but not always in another jurisdiction
Jurisdiction is the practical authority granted to a formally constituted legal body or to a political leader to deal with and make pronouncements on legal matters and, by implication, to administer justice within a defined area of responsibility...

, for an opinion on a question of law
Question of law
In jurisprudence, a question of law is a question which must be answered by applying relevant legal principles, by an interpretation of the law. Such a question is distinct from a question of fact, which must be answered by reference to facts and evidence, and inferences arising from those facts...


These cases typically arise when the court before which litigation is actually pending is required to decide a matter that turns on the law of another state or jurisdiction. If that other jurisdiction's law is unclear or uncertain, a certified question can then be sent to that jurisdiction's courts to render an opinion on the question of law that arose in the court in which the actual litigation is pending. The courts to whom these questions of law are certified are typically appellate court
Appellate court
An appellate court, commonly called an appeals court or court of appeals or appeal court , is any court of law that is empowered to hear an appeal of a trial court or other lower tribunal...

s or state supreme court
State supreme court
In the United States, the state supreme court is the highest state court in the state court system ....



Historically, the procedure under which one court certifies a question to another, arises out of the distinction in the law of England between common law
Common law
Common law is law developed by judges through decisions of courts and similar tribunals rather than through legislative statutes or executive branch action...

 courts and equity courts
Court of equity
A chancery court, equity court or court of equity is a court that is authorized to apply principles of equity, as opposed to law, to cases brought before it.These courts began with petitions to the Lord Chancellor of England...

. At one time, these two were separate and parallel legal systems, differing in procedure and the sort of case each had primary jurisdiction over. From time to time, a legal issue would arise in one court that fell within the other's jurisdiction and expertise; in this situation, the two courts could certify legal questions to each other. This remains possible in the state of Delaware
Delaware is a U.S. state located on the Atlantic Coast in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States. It is bordered to the south and west by Maryland, and to the north by Pennsylvania...

, which continues to have a separate Court of Chancery
Delaware Court of Chancery
The Delaware Court of Chancery is a court of equity in the American state of Delaware. It is one of Delaware's three constitutional courts, along with the Supreme Court and Superior Court.-Jurisdiction:...

. Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens
Charles John Huffam Dickens was an English novelist, generally considered the greatest of the Victorian period. Dickens enjoyed a wider popularity and fame than had any previous author during his lifetime, and he remains popular, having been responsible for some of English literature's most iconic...

 made reference to the process of the two separate courts certifying questions to each other as a part of the interminable litigation in Jarndyce v. Jarndyce which figures in the plot of Bleak House
Bleak House
Bleak House is the ninth novel by Charles Dickens, published in twenty monthly installments between March 1852 and September 1853. It is held to be one of Dickens's finest novels, containing one of the most vast, complex and engaging arrays of minor characters and sub-plots in his entire canon...

Equity sends questions to law, law sends questions back to equity; law finds it can’t do this, equity finds it can’t do that; neither can so much as say it can’t do anything, without this solicitor instructing and this counsel appearing for A, and that solicitor instructing and that counsel appearing for B; and so on through the whole alphabet, like the history of the apple pie.

In Clay v. Sun Insurance Office, Ltd., 377 U.S. 179 (1960), the United States Supreme Court confronted a situation where a circuit court of appeals could not "make a competent guess" about how the Florida courts would construe an insurance statute. The court observed that the Florida legislature had passed a statute allowing the federal courts to certify questions of state law to the Florida Supreme Court, but that the Florida courts had not yet made a rule establishing procedures under the statute. After the Clay decision, the various states began to adopt statutes or rules allowing for the certification of questions of state law to state courts. The relatively streamlined process of sending a certified question to a state appellate court also relieves federal courts of the unwieldy procedure of Pullman abstention, under which Federal courts abstain from deciding on the constitutionality of state laws while litigation seeking the construction of those laws is pending in state courts. In 1967, a Uniform Act
Uniform Act
In the United States, a Uniform Act is a proposed state law drafted by the U.S. Uniform Law Commission and approved by its sponsor, the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws ....

 was first proposed to establish a standard procedure for certified questions. In Lehman Bros. v. Schein, 416 U.S. 386 (1974), the Supreme Court praised the certified question procedure as helping to build a cooperative judicial federalism
Federalism is a political concept in which a group of members are bound together by covenant with a governing representative head. The term "federalism" is also used to describe a system of the government in which sovereignty is constitutionally divided between a central governing authority and...


As of 2008, forty eight states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico , officially the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico , is an unincorporated territory of the United States, located in the northeastern Caribbean, east of the Dominican Republic and west of both the United States Virgin Islands and the British Virgin Islands.Puerto Rico comprises an...

 have established procedures under which questions of state and local law may be certified to their courts. The highest courts of North Carolina
North Carolina
North Carolina is a state located in the southeastern United States. The state borders South Carolina and Georgia to the south, Tennessee to the west and Virginia to the north. North Carolina contains 100 counties. Its capital is Raleigh, and its largest city is Charlotte...

 and Missouri
Missouri is a US state located in the Midwestern United States, bordered by Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska. With a 2010 population of 5,988,927, Missouri is the 18th most populous state in the nation and the fifth most populous in the Midwest. It...

 do not accept certified questions.

Between state and federal courts

The typical case involving a certified question involves a Federal court, which because of diversity
Diversity jurisdiction
In the law of the United States, diversity jurisdiction is a form of subject-matter jurisdiction in civil procedure in which a United States district court has the power to hear a civil case where the persons that are parties are "diverse" in citizenship, which generally indicates that they are...

, supplemental
Supplemental jurisdiction
Supplemental jurisdiction is the authority of United States federal courts to hear additional claims substantially related to the original claim even though the court would lack the subject-matter jurisdiction to hear the additional claims independently. is a codification of the Supreme Court's...

, or removal jurisdiction
Removal jurisdiction
In the United States, removal jurisdiction refers to the right of a defendant to move a lawsuit filed in state court to the federal district court for the federal judicial district in which the state court sits. This is a general exception to the usual American rule giving the plaintiff the right...

 is presented with a question of state law. In these situations, the Erie doctrine
Erie doctrine
In United States law, the Erie doctrine is a fundamental legal doctrine of civil procedure mandating that a federal court in diversity jurisdiction must apply state substantive law....

 requires the Federal court that acquires jurisdiction over cases governed in part by state law to apply the substantive law
Substantive law
Substantive law is the statutory or written law that defines rights and duties, such as crimes and punishments , civil rights and responsibilities in civil law. It is codified in legislated statutes or can be enacted through the initiative process.Substantive law stands in contrast to procedural...

 of the states.

Generally, the Erie doctrine requires the Federal court to predict how the courts of a given state would rule and decide a given issue. Many states, however, allow certified questions to be addressed from the Federal court to the appellate court or state supreme court
State supreme court
In the United States, the state supreme court is the highest state court in the state court system ....

 of that state, allowing the state court to decide those questions of law. Essentially, the state court issues an advisory opinion
Advisory opinion
An advisory opinion is an opinion issued by a court that does not have the effect of adjudicating a specific legal case, but merely advises on the constitutionality or interpretation of a law. Some countries have procedures by which the executive or legislative branches may certify important...

 to the federal court, rendering an opinion on the state law issues raised in the case pending in federal court.

The state courts issuing these rulings do not consider the issuance of these rulings to be advisory opinions; they relate to genuine disputes, even though those disputes are actually pending in another court. Some state supreme courts have held that the state supreme court possesses an inherent judicial power to decide state law controversies submitted by other jurisdictions, even in the absence of a statute or rule authorizing these answers. Other state courts have interpreted their states' constitutions in a manner similar to the Federal interpretation of the cases and controversies clause of the United States Constitution
United States Constitution
The Constitution of the United States is the supreme law of the United States of America. It is the framework for the organization of the United States government and for the relationship of the federal government with the states, citizens, and all people within the United States.The first three...

. The Federal courts hold that this clause restricts a court's authority to rule on moot
In American law, a matter is moot if further legal proceedings with regard to it can have no effect, or events have placed it beyond the reach of the law...

 or unripe
In United States law, ripeness refers to the readiness of a case for litigation; "a claim is not ripe for adjudication if it rests upon contingent future events that may not occur as anticipated, or indeed may not occur at all." For example, if a law of ambiguous quality has been enacted but never...

 controversies over which that court may not have jurisdiction; states that follow this rule will generally not answer certified questions of state law. In some of those states, the power to issue rulings on certified questions has been granted to the courts by constitutional amendment.

Many states, by legislation or by judicial rule making, have adopted a Uniform Act
Uniform Act
In the United States, a Uniform Act is a proposed state law drafted by the U.S. Uniform Law Commission and approved by its sponsor, the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws ....

 called the Uniform Certification of Questions of Law Act. The uniform act provides that a state supreme court may answer questions of law certified to it by the United States Supreme Court, a court of appeals of the United States, a United States district court, or the highest appellate or intermediate appellate court of any other state. The certifying court must certify the question in writing, and the state court will accept jurisdiction and decide the issue if:
  1. "questions of law of this state are involved in any proceeding before the certifying court which may be determinative of the proceeding"; or
  2. "it appears to the certifying court there is no controlling precedent in the decisions of the supreme court of this state."

In state courts

In some states, the name "certified question" is given to what is also known as an interlocutory appeal
Interlocutory appeal
An interlocutory appeal , in the law of civil procedure, is an appeal of a ruling by a trial court that is made before the trial itself has concluded. Most jurisdictions generally prohibit such appeals, requiring parties to wait until the trial has concluded before they challenge any of the...

, a procedure under which an appellate court, at its discretion, may review a decision made by a trial court that has been made before a final judgment has been entered, and that ordinarily could not be appealed directly.

Certification of questions to the United States Supreme Court

Rule 19 of the Supreme Court Rules allows for the certification of legal questions to the United States Supreme Court. The rule provides that "a United States court of appeals
United States court of appeals
The United States courts of appeals are the intermediate appellate courts of the United States federal court system...

 may certify to this Court a question or proposition of law on which it seeks instruction for the proper decision of a case. The certificate shall contain a statement of the nature of the case and the facts on which the question or proposition of law arises. Only questions or propositions of law may be certified, and they shall be stated separately and with precision."

Certification of a question of law to the United States Supreme Court is another way, in addition to the writ of certiorari, direct appeal
An appeal is a petition for review of a case that has been decided by a court of law. The petition is made to a higher court for the purpose of overturning the lower court's decision....

, and original jurisdiction
Original jurisdiction
The original jurisdiction of a court is the power to hear a case for the first time, as opposed to appellate jurisdiction, when a court has the power to review a lower court's decision.-France:...

, by which cases can be brought to the docket of the Supreme Court. It is a very infrequent procedure, and has happened only five times over the past six decades.
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