The Justice System

By Katherine Laws

U.S. District Courts

District courts are the federal courts in which lawsuits begin and trials are held. At least one district court is given to each state, but some have more. There are 94 courts, which hear both civil and criminal cases. District courts are the only federal courts that have witnesses and juries!

U.S. Court of Appeals

People who lose in a district court often appeal to the next highest level—a U.S. court of appeals. Appeals courts review decisions made in lower district courts. An example of this could be if a person has been found guilty of murder and a mistake was found in the proceedings. The defendant’s lawyer can request an appeal.This is appellate jurisdiction—the authority to hear a case appealed from a lower court. Each of the 12 U.S. courts of appeals covers a particular geographic area called a circuit.

The Thirteenth Appeals Court

A thirteenth appeals court, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, has nationwide jurisdiction. Appeals courts do not hold trials. Instead, a panel of judges reviews the case records and listens to arguments from lawyers on both sides. The judges for this and all appeals courts are appointed by the President and approved by the Senate.The judges may decide in one of three ways: uphold the original decision, reverse the decision, or remand the case—send it back to the lower court to be tried again.

What do appeal courts do?

Appeals courts do not decide guilt or innocence or which side should win a suit. They rule only on whether the original trial was fair and protected the person’s rights. Most appeals court decisions are final. A few cases are appealed to the Supreme Court. One appellate judge writes an opinion that explains the legal thinking behind the court’s decision in the case. The opinion sets a precedent or model for other judges to follow in making their own decisions on similar cases.

The Supreme Court

This is the highest court. It has 9 Justices that serve for life, and they are are appointed by the president with Senate approval.

Original Jurisdiction

This is the authority to hear a case for the first time.

Appellate Jurisdiction

This is the authority to hear a case appealed from a lower court.

Exclusive Jurisdiction

This is when only federal courts can see and hear cases.

Concurrent Jurisdiction

This is rare, but it is when state and federal courts share jurisdiction.