What Is a Petition? Definition, How It Works, and Example

What Is a Petition?

A petition is a legal document formally requesting a court order and setting out the petitioner's version of the facts at issue.

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

Petitions and complaints both are considered pleadings. A pleading is a formal statement outlining one party's version of the matter.

Key Takeaways

  • A petition is a formal request seeking a court order and stating the reasons why it is needed.
  • It may be filed by a person, group, or organization, and is typically the first step in a lawsuit.
  • A petition also may be used to appeal a court's decision. The petition to appeal states why the legal issues surrounding a case should be reviewed by another court.
  • In legal terminology, 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 seeks damages or to force the defendant to start or stop doing something.

How a Petition Works

When a petition is filed, the plaintiff and defendant are given the opportunity to settle the case privately or use an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) process rather than going to trial.

The court may also provide a summary judgment.

If the case goes to trial, the judge will ultimately issue a verdict. Either party to the suit may choose to appeal the court’s decision.

Petitions vs. Complaints

While the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, petitions and complaints are not the same. A petition is filed 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 but is termed 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.

Rather than ask the courts to compel the defendant to perform a particular action, a petition asks the court to provide a court order.

More generally, a petition is a formal request advocating for a cause and addressed to an authority. Many signatures are often sought in order to demonstrate support for the cause.

Petitions in the Appeals Process

Petitions for court orders may include requests to dismiss a case, reduce a defendant's bail, or provide a continuance.

Another notable use of the petition is the request for an appeal. An appeal is a form of a court order in which one party in a lawsuit asks the courts to review a previous verdict.

The rules for appeal may vary between state and federal courts but they generally begin with the filing of a petition to appeal. A petition to appeal outlines the reasons why a verdict should be reviewed by an appellate court. Commonly called a court of appeal, an appellate court has the power to modify or overturn a lower court decision.

A petition to appeal can be filed by either the respondent or the petitioner. 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 U.S., an appeal of a lower court ruling can ultimately lead to a case being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

7,000 to 8,000

The approximate number of petitions for appeal that the U.S. Supreme Court receives each year. About 80 cases receive a plenary review with oral arguments, and about 100 are considered but then dismissed without review. The 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.

The case had begun in 2017. The consumer agency had issued a civil investigative demand to Seila Law, a California-based firm that specializes in debt-related legal services. The law firm challenged the consumer agency's power to conduct investigations on the grounds that its director was unconstitutionally insulated from presidential oversight.

The civil investigative demand (essentially a subpoena) sought information and documents related to the firm’s business practices. Seila Law asked the agency to set aside the demand on the ground that the agency’s leadership by a single director removable only for cause violated the constitutional principle of the separation of powers.

When the agency declined, Seila Law refused to comply with the demand. The agency 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.

The Supreme Court Ruling

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 agency'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.

What Is the Olive Branch Petition?

The Olive Branch Petition was a last-ditch effort to prevent war between Britain and the American colonies. Urged by moderates in the Continental Congress and adopted on July 5, 1775, the petition pledged loyalty to King George III while restating the colonists' complaints against the crown.

What Does Freedom of Petition Mean?

The freedom of petition is enshrined in the First Amendment, which states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

In other words, Americans have the right to express their opinions to their government and to ask it to right a wrong or correct a problem.

What Is the Petition of Right?

The Petition of Right was sent to England's King Charles I by the English Parliament in 1628, seeking his recognition of four principles. The Parliament asked him not to levy taxes without its consent; not to imprison subjects without cause; not to quarter soldiers on citizens without their consent, and not to declare martial law in times of peace.

The king formally accepted the petition but did not abide by its principles. He was beheaded in 1649.

The Petition of Right is considered to be one of the fundamental statements of the rights of English citizens.

What Are Amended and Supplemental Petitions?

A plaintiff who files a petition can follow it up with an amended petition or a supplemental petition.

  • An amended petition adds to or revises the particulars described in the original document.
  • A supplemental petition adds additional allegations regarding acts that occurred after the original was filed.

The Bottom Line

In the United States, a civil court case begins with a petition or a complaint filed by a petitioner or a plaintiff. Both actions are pleadings, intended to initiate action by the court.

In some cases, that action is taken by the court. In others, the opposing sides in the case are able to reach an agreement without further action by the court.

More often, the petition or complaint is the first in a series of hearings, which may be resolved only to be appealed to a higher court. In very rare cases, the issue goes all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Article Sources
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  2. Supreme Court of the United States. "Seila Law LLC v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau."

  3. Oyez. "Seila Law LLC v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau."

  4. United States Courts. "About the Supreme Court."

  5. Freedom Forum Institute. "Freedom of Petition Overview."

  6. Britannica. "Petition of Right."

  7. LexusNexus. "Amended, supplemental and further petitions."