The Federal Court System

How the System Works

About the Federal Court System

The federal court is composed of three levels of courts. The Supreme Court of the United States is the court of last resort. Usually it is an appellate court that operates under discretionary review, meaning the court can choose which cases they wish to hear. Under Article III of the constitution, it is required to have a Supreme Court. It also states that Congress can create other courts in terms of certain jurisdictions. In some cases, the Supreme Court is able to have original jurisdiction rather than appellate jurisdiction. Original jurisdiction is when the court hears the case for the first time. Appellate jurisdiction is the ability to hear a case appealed from a lower court. Once a court has made a ruling, they give an opinion. However, before the supreme court, a judge is set in place to determine whether the accused goes to prison or set on bail. This judge is called a Magistrate Judge. An opinion is the legal thinking behind the court's decision. When a court is making a decision they may set a precedent for other judges. This allows it easier for some judges to make smart decisions. The US Marshals are apart of the federal court system also. They protect the court system and enforce the system. People who are accused of a federal crime are prosecuted by US Attorneys.

Structure of the Federal Court System

There are four main levels of the federal court system:

  • At the bottom, there are the Federal Courts and other entities outside the judicial branch. This level was established by Congress to carry out a legislative power. This level of courts contain Military courts (trial and appellate), Court of Veterans Appeals, US Tax Courts, and federal administrative agencies and boards.
  • The next level in the federal court system is the Trial Courts, also known as the district courts. District courts are the where trials and lawsuits begin. The district courts are able to hear almost all of the federal court cases of any type. In total, there are 94 District Courts. Three of the 94 district courts contain bankruptcy courts that deal with bankruptcy. Within this level of the federal court system, there are two special courts. There is the US Court of International Trade, which deals with customs and international trade issues. Then there is the US Court of Federal Claims, which deals with monetary damages to the United States. The trial courts have the power to hear a case for the first time, this is known as original jurisdiction.
  • The third level of the Federal Court system is the Appellate Courts. The 94 judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a United States court of appeals. Court of Appeals is the federal court that reviews decisions made in the district courts. A circuit is a geographic area of a US Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases. If an Appellate Court rules that a case has an error, such as improper evidence, then the court can remand the case. A remand means that the case is sent back to the trial courts.
  • The final level of the federal court system is the Supreme Court. The US Supreme Court consists of the Chief Justice of the United States and of his/her eight associate justices. The justices of the Supreme Court serve life terms, meaning they are only elected if one passes away or if one member is impeached. The Supreme Court has Appellate Jurisdiction over all levels of the federal court system. The Supreme Court is the final interpreter of federal constitutional law. The Supreme Court hears a limited number of the cases each year and it is asked to decide the final ruling. Those cases may begin in the federal or state courts, and they usually involve important questions about the Constitution or federal law.
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