Final Judgment Rule

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By congressional statute the federal courts of appeals are permitted, in the usual case, to exercise their appellate jurisdiction only over final judgments of the district courts. An additional provision authorizes review of district court orders granting, denying, or otherwise dealing with injunctions, and of certain other interlocutory orders less frequently given. Furthermore, a district judge may certify an interlocutory order for review by the court of appeals, and that court can, in its discretion, review such a nonfinal order. The Supreme Court's appellate jurisdiction over cases coming from the state courts also is limited to final judgments of those courts. (The Supreme Court is not limited by this final judgment rule in hearing cases coming to it from a federal court of appeals; it can grant certiorari in any case "in" the court of appeals.)

The final judgment rule, which aims at avoiding piecemeal appellate review, has so many judge-made exceptions that it has aptly been called "a permeable screen." Thus, a "collateral" order, unrelated to the merits of the case, may be reviewed if it presents an issue that might never be decided if the final judgment rule were strictly applied. Similarly, if rigorous application of the rule would do irreparable injury to some important federal policy, the Supreme Court has held that a nonfinal order can be reviewed. And in united states v. nixon (1974) the Court permitted review of a nonfinal order of a district court ordering the President of the United States to turn over the "Watergate tapes," in order to avoid putting the President to the "unseemly" choice between obeying the order and refusing and being cited for contempt. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the final judgment "rule" has been made into a technique for allowing review of those interlocutory orders the Supreme Court thinks should be reviewed even though they are not final.

Kenneth L. Karst


Wright, Charles Alan 1983 The Law of Federal Courts, 4th ed. Pages 697–717, 739–743. St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing Co.