The Federal Court System

and how it works

District Courts

District courts make up the lowest level of the federal court system. They are the only federal courts that have witnesses and juries. All states have at least one, though some larger states can have more. There are 94 total in the United States. It is in district courts that trials are held and lawsuits are begun. They can hear criminal and civil cases and also have the power of original jurisdiction.

Original Jurisdiction

Original jurisdiction is the authority to hear a case for the first time. In the federal court system, district courts are the only level that uses this type of jurisdiction. The higher courts use appellate jurisdiction.

Court of Appeals

The next level of the federal court system after a district court is a court of appeals. They use appellate jurisdiction to review decisions made in lower courts and rule on whether or not they are fair. The judge can uphold the original decision, reverse the original decision, or remand the case. Most of the time this ruling is final, but sometimes cases make it to the Supreme Court. There are 12 US courts of appeals, each covering a circuit. Along with these there is one more court: the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. This court has jurisdiction over the entire country.

Appellate Jurisdiction

Appellate jurisdiction is the authority to hear a case previously appealed in a lower court. All courts in the federal court system higher than district court use this type of jurisdiction, except in certain special circumstances.


A circuit is a geographic area used by the federal court system to determine which cases go to which courts. The picture to the right shows the geographic boundaries of the courts of appeals.


When a case is remanded it is sent back to a lower court to be tried again. This is sometimes used by judges in the courts of appeals. The case either goes to the trial court where it started, or a lower appellate court.


An opinion is what a judge in an appeals court writes to explain the court's decision and the leagal thinking behind it. The opinion helps set a precedent for later cases.


A precedent is a model created from previous court decisions that judges use for help in making decisions in similar cases.

Life Terms

Having a life term means that you serve in that duty for the rest of your life. The only government officials that have life terms are the members of the Supreme Court. The only way they can be removed is through impeachment.

Magistrate Judges

Magistrate judges are found in district courts. They decide on whether or not the case should go on trial by hearing preliminary evidence. They also determine whether the accused should be held in jail or released on bail.

US Attorneys

US attorneys are government lawyers who prosecute people accused of breaking a federal law by presenting evidence of the charges in court. They represent the US in government related civil cases as well.

US Marshals

US marshals are found in every federal judicial district. They make arrests, collect fines, and take the convicted to prision as well as keeping order in the court room, protecting jurors, and ordering people to appear in court by serving subpoenas.