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There Is No Higher Court

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Sometimes, a law or an action by the authorities is plainly unconstitutional. In the real world, that is solved by an appeal to a higher court to overturn an unconstitutional law or undo a wrongful application thereof.

Which does not happen in fiction in general and in films in particular. An old law that has a witch burned is applied independently of the obvious constitutional issues, ditto one that forbids dancing, and so on, and so forth.


Of course, the power of plot compels it.

See also Fiction Is Not Fair. Supertrope to Ultimate Authority Mayor.


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    Films — Live-Action 
  • Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. SOMEONE had to be able to tell witch-burning is unconstitutional.
  • Footloose: A local law bans dancing and rock music, despite being an extremely blatant violation of the First Amendment. It's based on a real place that really did have a law against dancing until 1980, so this might fall under Reality Is Unrealistic.
  • Doc Hollywood. Most judges don't judge their own cases.
  • Averted in Inherit the Wind, which was based (loosely) on the Scopes Monkey Trial. The appeal isn't shown in the film, but Cates (the Scopes-analogue) and his lawyer discuss making an appeal. In the case the film was based on, the verdict was overturned on a technicality (the fine assessed was higher than the law allowed).
  • Amistad, based on a true story, averts this with the case being appealed to the Supreme Court and the lawyers have to explain to Cinque why their case has to be argued again after they just won their freedom in court. For his part, Cinque is both outraged and bewildered at this alien legal concept.
  • Pleasantville. The anti-color laws violate the First Amendment and the authorities refuse to give the hero a lawyer when he requests one on the grounds that they want things to remain pleasant.
  • Ernest Goes to Jail. There is actually mention of a higher court - but it's refused to hear Felix Nash's case, meaning that Ernest P. Worrell (who has been switched with Nash in jail) is going to the chair.

  • Usually part of the maddening Crapsack Worlds Franz Kafka's characters are forced to deal with. Subverted in The Trial. The Law is described as having many strong, powerful guards by a series of doors, and past each guard is a stronger guard. Even if K. was able to get his case appealed to a higher court, he'd still be condemned guilty sooner or later.
  • In The Appeal by John Grisham, the case being subjected to the title appeal is being reviewed by the Mississippi Supreme Court. After the court overturns the verdict, the litigants' lawyers say they'll appeal to the US District Court and the US Supreme Court, but that chances of anything helping them will be so slim as to be non-existent. In this case, there is a higher court, but it doesn't matter.
  • Also averted, somewhat, in The Chamber (the book, not the movie), when the lawyer Adam ultimately comes up with 4 legal challenges to the death penalty and files them in Mississippi Supreme Court, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and the US Supreme Court. In some cases, the Mississippi Supreme Court is the one that shoots down the challenges, and in others, it's the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The US Supreme Court consistently refuses to hear the case (they only take a small number of those filed).
  • Double Subverted in To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus Finch was going to appeal Tom's case, but Tom was shot to death, allegedly for trying to escape.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In Ed, a judge would decide the punishment of people before him with a Wheel-of-Fortune-style implement. He seemed to have been doing that for a while before the protagonist discussed it with him....
  • Thoroughly averted in the Law & Order franchise, where appeals to higher courts are a frequent part of the "Law" half of each show.
  • Also averted in JAG where both Harm & Mac argue before the US Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, and Chegwidden once prepared to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court. Played straight in the episode "Tribunal" where the fictional Number 3 in Al-Qaeda is sentenced to death by a military commission.
  • Doctor Who: "I am The Doctor. If you don't like it, if you want to take it to a higher authority, there isn't one. It stops with me."
  • Averted in Hatfields & McCoys after the McCoys start paying bounty hunters to kidnap Hatfields in West Virginia and bring them to Kentucky to stand trial. The legality of this is quickly challenged by West Virginia and the case is appealed all the way to the US Supreme Court. The Court seemingly rules in favor of the Hatfields but allows for Loophole Abuse where they are released and then immediately rearrested. After the trial that ended the feud, "Wall" Hatfield, a lawyer and a judge, plans to appeal his sentence but dies in prison before the appeal process gets anywhere.

    Video Games 
  • Played With in Liberal Crime Squad: while your Liberals can't ask for review to an higher court, Supreme Court's ruling are one of the ways to influence the issues.

    Visual Novels 
  • In Ace Attorney, the trials you take part in are essentially hearings, supposedly to determine whether the defendant is guilty enough for a real trial — a "guilty" verdict just means they get taken off screen and tried for real. They're usually not treated as anything less then "Get Off Scott Free vs. Death Penalty". Since the Ace Attorney games are Japanese, and therefore based on the Japanese system rather than American, they apparently take a lot of actual influence from that system.
    • There is ultimately a higher court, but the 3-day-max "hearings" usually end up being the final word: if the defendant is found guilty in the preliminary hearing, then their chances of being acquitted in the trial are essentially non-existent. The trial itself is usually for sentencing, rather than determination of guilt. If your lawyer can't prove you innocent in the hearing, then the evidence is obviously overwhelmingly against you.
    • Professor Layton vs. Ace Attorney takes this in a horrifying direction. Instead of regular criminal cases, Phoenix is involved with actual witch trials. Since witches are considered incredibly dangerous by the people of Labyrinthia, the penalty for being proven as one is to be lowered into a fiery pit to one's death. Even if the defendant wasn't killed upon receiving a Guilty verdict though, Labyrinthia's Medieval Stasis world likely wouldn't have a concept of appeals.

    Web Comics 
  • After the collapse of his idiotic plan to enact genocide on Jean's sentient robots and being dragged to court, Freefall's Mr. Kornada instructs his robot assistant to press for a retrial in case he's found guilty, hoping to tie up the legal system into declaring him innocent. However, Blunt points out that, simply, Jean's not big enough for this strategy to work - there's only one judge aside from the authority elected to preside over his trial (the Mayor) - and said judge is foaming at the mouth at Mr. Kornada, automatically making the Mayor's court Mr. Kornada's best option.

    Western Animation 
  • The Simpsons:
    • The mayor at one point discovers that the city of Springfield actually has an old and unenforced law banning the sale of alcohol. Therein, anyone convicted of possessing alcohol in Springfield was to be punished "by catapult" as in being flung into the next county with one. Then it turns out that the 200-year-old law was repealed 199 years ago anyway. The old man who discovered the law suddenly realized there were more words on the parchment.
    • Judge Snyder has unilaterally banned multiple things from Springfield (such as sugar) and his authority in the matter is never questioned, nor does anyone ever seem to think about just driving their car over to Shelbyville where the judge's far-reaching authority stops.
      • Judge Snyder also has the legal authority to give an outsider the name, job title and mother of a citizen of Springfield, he has the power to expel said citizen from the city, and the power to have anyone who brings up the changes tortured.

    Real Life 
  • Note that just because there ARE appeal courts in the real world doesn't mean that local governments or judges don't do anything illegal or that unconstitutional actions are always challenged. The process of bringing a lawsuit is extremely slow and extremely expensive and requires someone who is injured by the illegal action to bring a suit — just because something is unconstitutional doesn't necessarily mean that it is going to be heard by a court.
  • That bit about "somebody who is injured by the illegal action" can get downright insidious in the U.S. because of something called the "standing doctrine." Long story short, not only do you need to be affected by a law, if you stop being affected you lose the right to bring suit. For decades, this stopped anybody from challenging anti-abortion laws because nobody could bring a lawsuit to the US Supreme Court within nine months (Roe v. Wade was finally given a pass on the previous strict requirements); today, many otherwise killer First Amendment lawsuits against schools get tossed out because the district manages to stall the case until the wronged student graduates.
    • This last loophole has received some attention, however, and it is possible that the courts might be willing in the future to entertain jurisdiction after graduation under the doctrine that standing exists when the behavior is "capable of repetition yet evading review" (i.e. when the case is likely to become moot before it can work its way through the legal system) or is stopped as a result of "voluntary cessation" (i.e. when they just stop doing it whenever you threaten to sue; this is most common in pollution cases).
  • Litigation is a very expensive endeavor and an appeal means more costs are incurred. Often times in real life it is easier for the defeated litigant to pay up than to go through an appeals process which will consume even more of his resources and time.
  • It also needs to be remembered that an appeal is not a rehearing of the original case. Appellate courts will almost always defer to the original court's finding of fact, unless it is patently wrong. What an appeal does is review whether the lower court erred in its application of law to the case, or whether proper procedures were followed or whether the action was constitutional, or within powers and so on. Grounds of appeal are thus usually quite narrow (exceptions exist in some countries where the same cases actually are tried in the appeals courts again, such as Italy, but this just makes the appeals process even more time-consuming, as you'd expect).
  • Finally, as you go higher in the appeals process, in most jurisdictions, you need to first obtain leave (in some jurisdictions called certiorari, from the Latin "to be informed") from the court before they will even hear your appeal; if they refuse, your appeal won't be heard. Usually this is the case with higher appellate courts in judicial systems with two levels of appellate courts. Leave is indeed very rarely granted-the US Supreme Court grants certiorari to 100 cases a year, out of 10,000 applications! The court simply doesn't have time to listen to every appeal. Instead, it tries to prioritize cases which have greater national interest. Having the courts of appeals in two circuits reach opposite conclusions in similar cases also tends to increase the likelihood that the Supreme Court will take the case, in order to get the issue definitively settled.
  • Although a Supreme Court was planned in the Confederate Constitution, no such jurisdiction had actually been established, due to fear from Confederate politicians it could infringe on their "States' rights." It led to issues when some district judges ruled conscription inconstitutional and such orders couldn't be appealed, leading to conscription being de facto abolished in some corners. Unionists also managed to stall the confiscation of their property by fillinig appeals to a non-existant court.
  • In some cases of Emergency Powers, some Kangaroo Courts and military courts might be allowed to not have their ruling being able to be appealed, to speed the procedures.
  • Averted in French Courts b the 1962 Canal ruling, where the Council of State ruled it was unlawful for a decree to create a court whose rulings couldn't be appealed. In this case, it was a military court created to try anti-Gaullist, pro-French Algeria terrorists.