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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.

Examples of There Is No Higher Court include:


  • Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. SOMEONE had to be able to tell witch-burning is unconstitutional.
  • Footloose. First Amendment.
    • Although it's based on a real place that really did have a law against dancing until 1980. So...yeah.
  • Doc Hollywood. Most judges don't judge their own cases.
  • Averted in Inherit the Wind, which was based 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, there was no appeal, as the verdict was overturned on a technicality (the fine assessed was higher than the law allowed).
  • In Sin City, it's obvious that the Rourke family owns the city so they use the courts to their advantage. One could even assume that they also control the courts in the unknown state the city resides in since one of the brothers is a senator. There's really nothing to explain why the more justice-minded characters wouldn't go to a federal court, though.
    • You can't go to a federal court unless a federal law has been broken. Most of the time this is done by claiming someone's civil rights have been violated. But unless you can get that to work, you can't. Also, being a senator can help with that as well.
  • 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.


  • Usually part of the maddening Crapsack Worlds Franz Kafka's characters are forced to deal with.
    • Subverted in The Trial. The Law 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 up, he'd still be condemned guilty sooner of later.
  • In The Appeal by John Grisham, the case being subjected to the titular 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.
  • Double Subverted in To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus Finch was going to appeal Tom's case, but he 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 and Order franchise, where appeals to higher courts are a frequent part of the "Law" half of each show.

Video Games

  • 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 never treated as anything less then "Get Off Scott Free vs. Death Penalty" however.
    • Although in the second game, it's mentioned that Edgeworth will use his influence to get Acro a reduced sentence. Acro is guilty of premeditated murder, so apparently it's not a case of "Get Off Scott Free vs. Death Penalty".
    • Interestingly, if the guilty party is a witness to the defense's case, they seem to be arrested and incarcerated immediately... until you play Trials and Tribulations, where Luke Atmey, after being arrested, goes on trial in the next room as your second case (a murder trial) in the chapter starts. In fact, after you call him in and get him for the murder, he appears to actually be imprisoned on the spot with no trial by a higher court.
      • Criminals are normally incarcerated pending trial in the US, so this isn't terribly unusual. In some cases it's surprising, though -- Max Galactica, Will Powers, Miles Edgeworth and Wocky Kitaki should all be able to afford bail easily, yet all of them remain in the detention center until the trial.
      • Judges rarely set bail for murder trials.
        • Meaning they also all have the resources to flee; since they're being held for murder, which is a death penalty crime in the Phoenix Wright universe, it's not beyond belief that they'd be held without bond.
        • The Ace Attorney games are Japanese, and therefore based on the Japanese system rather than American, and apparently take a lot of actual influence from that system.

Western Animation

  • In 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...
    • Nothing unconstitutional about banning the sale of alcohol (there are a number of places in the USA that ban it), but the catapult is right out.
      • The power of a state to ban alcohol is one of their explicitly enumerated Constitutional powers. 21st Amendment, Sec. 2.
      • Okay, the example still stands until the Supreme Court rules on the Catapult issue (pending Gumble vs. Quimby).
    • And of course 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.

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 subject to judicial review.
    • 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 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.
  • Litigation is a very expensive endeavor and an appeal means more costs are incurred. Often time in real life it is easier for the defeated litigant to pay up than to go for 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 courts finding of fact, unless it is patently wrong. What an appeal does is review whether the lower forum 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.
  • Finally as you go higher in the appeal process in most jurisdictions you need to first obtain leave from the Court before they will even hear your appeal; if they refuse, your appeal won't even be heard. Usually this is the case with higher appellate courts. Leave is indeed very rarely granted, the US Supreme Court grants leave to 100 cases a year; out of 10,000 applications! The reason for this is due to the fact it is in the public interest to ensure that litigation ceases and that appellate courts and higher forum are used to decide cases of national importance, or which raise issues of interpretation of statutes. Not to adjudicate in every Tom, Dick and Harry's dispute.
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