How the Federal Court System Works

By: Sara Hall

How Federal Courts Are Organized

  • District Courts are the federal courts where trials are held and lawsuits are begun
  • For all federal cases, district courts have the authority to hear a case for the first time, which is known as original jurisdiction

U.S. Courts of Appeals

  • Appeals courts review decisions made in lower district courts
  • These courts have the authority to hear a case appealed from a lower court - appellate jurisdiction
  • There are 12 U.S. courts of appeals that cover a particular geographic area known as a circuit.
  • Only an appellate judge writes an opinion (states the legal thinking behind the court's decision).
  • This opinion then sets a model for other judges to follow in making decisions on similar cases, also known as a precedent.
  • The judges may decide to remand a case, or send it back to the lower court to be tried again
  • Life terms is defined by judges who have their position for as long as they would like.

Magistrate Judges

  • These judges decide whether the accused should be held in jail or released in bail
  • They also hear preliminary evidence and determine if a case should go to trial

U.S. Marshals

  • Every federal judicial district has a U.S. marshal
  • They make arrests, collect fines, and take those who have been convicted to jail
  • Other jobs include: protecting jurors, keeping order in the court, and serving subpoenas (ordering people to appear in court)

U.S. Attorney

  • These are government lawyers who prosecute people accused of breaking federal laws
  • Jobs include: looking into the charges, presenting the evidence in court, and representing the United States in civil cases involving the government