US Federal Court System

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District Courts and Courts of Appeals

The federal court system begins with the District Courts. These courts have original jurisdiction-they are the first in the federal court system to hear a case. These are also the only courts to involve witnesses and juries. At this level, Magistrate judges decide if an accused person should be held on bail or in jail and whether or not a case should go to trial. Each district also has a US Attorney who prosecutes people accused of breaking federal crimes. Districts also have US Marshals, who collect fines, make arrests, take convicted people to prison, serve subpoenas, keep courtroom order, and protect jurors. If someone loses a case at this level, they may appeal to have their case heard in a US Court of Appeals. These courts have appellate jurisdiction, meaning that they hear cases appealed from lower courts. There are 12 Courts of Appeals, each covering a region called a circuit. There is also a special thirteenth Court of Appeals with nationwide jurisdiction. Instead of holding trials, a judge can decide to uphold or reverse the original decision or to send the case back to a lower court to be tried again, a process called "remanding".

Supreme Court

Appeals courts only rule whether or not the original verdict was fair. In an appellate case, one judge writes an opinion about the verdict. This opinion sets a precedent-a model upon which future related decisions are based. Usually the appellate ruling is final but some cases are appealed to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has 9 judges that serve for life terms (or as long as they desire).

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