What Is a Petition?

A petition is a legal document formally requesting a court order. Petitions, along with complaints, are considered pleadings at the onset of a lawsuit.

Key Takeaways

  • A petition is a formal request seeking a specific court order, made by a person, group, or organization to the court, typically at the start of a lawsuit.
  • A plaintiff files a petition or complaint with the court in stage one of a civil lawsuit, specifying what the lawsuit is about.
  • A petition is made to the court by a petitioner against a respondent, while a complaint is filed by a plaintiff against a defendant.
  • A petition asks the court to provide a court order, while a complaint is filed to seek damages or to get the defendant to start or stop doing something.
  • Petitions are often used in an appeal—a petition to appeal states why the legal issues surrounding a case should be reviewed by another court.

How a Petition Works

When a lawsuit is filed, it moves through a series of stages before it is finally resolved. In civil cases, the first stage has the plaintiff file a petition or complaint with the court, outlining the legal basis for the lawsuit. The defendant receives a copy of the document and a notice to appear in court.

At this point, the plaintiff and defendant are given the opportunity to settle the case privately or use an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) mechanism rather than go to trial. The courts may also provide a summary judgment. If the case goes to trial, the judge will ultimately levy a verdict, and either party to the suit may choose to appeal the court’s decision.

Petitions vs. Complaints

While sometimes used interchangeably, petitions and complaints are not the same. A petition is provided to a court by a petitioner, while a complaint is filed by a plaintiff.

The party that the lawsuit is filed against is called the respondent when a petition is filed, and the defendant in the case of a complaint. Plaintiffs file a complaint when they are seeking damages from the defendant, or when they want the courts to compel the defendant to start (or stop) a particular action.

On the other hand, rather than ask the courts to compel the defendant to perform a particular action, a petition asks the court to provide a court order.

Outside of lawsuits, a petition is a formal request made to a person, group, or organization, seeking support, advocacy, a favor, or a change in law or policy.

Petitions in the Appeals Process

Court orders may include dismissing a case, reducing bail, or providing a continuance. One of the more notable uses of petitions is the appeal. An appeal is a form of a court order in which one party in a lawsuit asks the courts to review a verdict once the verdict is made.

The rules for appeal may vary between state and federal courts but typically begins with the filing of a petition to appeal. Similar to how a petition outlines the legal reasons for a court order, a petition to appeal outlines the reasons why a verdict should be reviewed by an appellate court. A petition to appeal can be filed by either the respondent or the petitioner and, in some instances, both parties may file for an appeal.

An appeal requests that a court review the legal issues surrounding the case, rather than the facts of the case that were presented to a jury. In the United States, appeals of lower court rulings can ultimately lead to a case being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, though the Supreme Court hears a small number of petitions each year.

7,000 to 8,000

The approximate number of petitions for appeal the Supreme Court receives each year. Around 80 cases, or under 1%, receive plenary review with oral arguments, and 100 cases or so are considered but then dismissed without review; plenary review allows the higher court to substitute its ruling regarding whether the lower court applied the law correctly.

Example of a Petition

In 2020, the United States Supreme Court heard the case of Seila Law LLC v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, in which a law firm challenged the CFPB's power to conduct investigations, on the grounds its director was unconstitutionally insulated from Presidential oversight.

In 2017, the CFPB issued a civil investigative demand to Seila Law LLC, a California-based law firm that provides debt-related legal services to clients. The civil investigative demand (essentially a subpoena) sought information and documents related to the firm’s business practices. Seila Law asked the CFPB to set aside the demand on the ground that the agency’s leadership by a single director removable only for cause violated the separation of powers. When the CFPB declined, Seila Law refused to comply with the demand, and the CFPB filed a petition to enforce the demand in district court.

The district court granted the petition and ordered Seila Law to comply. Seila Law then appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which affirmed the district court's decision, citing Supreme Court precedents upholding limits on the President's power to remove independent agency directors.

Seila Law appealed again, and in March 2020, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case. They dealt with two questions:

  1. Does the vesting of substantial executive authority in the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an independent agency led by a single director, violate the separation of powers principle?
  2. If it does, is 12 U.S.C. § 5491(c)(3) (which states the President may remove the CFPB Director only for “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office) severable from the Dodd-Frank Act?

In June, the court issued its decision. Overturning the Ninth Circuit, it ruled the president is free to fire the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau without cause. The CFPB's leadership by a single director removable only for inefficiency, neglect, or malfeasance violates the separation of powers, but that provision is severable from the Dodd-Frank Act, wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in his opinion for the Court.