Federal Court System

The organization and processes of the US Justice System

Lower Level Courts

The first stop in the court system is to the Magistrate Judge. The Magistrate decides whether accused people should be released on bail or continue to be held in jail. They also decide whether the case should go to trial after hearing preliminary evidence. The next stop is to the District Courts. These are the courts where trials and lawsuits are held. Each state has at least one district court, but some larger states may have 2 or 3. These courts have original jurisdiction, or the right to hear a case for the first time.

Appeals Courts

If something were to go wrong in a District Court (ex: mishandling of evidence), the accused person can request that the trial go to the US Court of Appeals. There, the trial will be reviewed. This is called appellate jurisdiction- the authority to hear a case appealed from a lower court. All of the Appeals Courts preside over a certain geographic district called a circuit.


Once the trial has been reviewed, the presiding Judge will rule in one of three ways: uphold the original ruling, reverse the original ruling, or send the case back to the district court to be tried again (called a remand).

Final Decisions and Supreme Courts

An appeals court does not decide whether the accused is innocent or guilty. They simply decide whether a trial was fair and protected the rights of the accused. Most of the appeals court cases are final. One of the judges from the Appeals Court will write an opinion on the case that explains why the court made that particular ruling. If a similar case were to show up in the future, this opinion will be used as a precedent (a model) for how the similar case should be ruled.


If a case does get appealed to the Supreme Court, it will be ruled on by the 9 Supreme Court Justices. These justices serve for life terms, which means they can serve as long as they like.

Additional Information on the Court System

When people break federal laws, they are prosecuted by a US Attorney, or a lawyer who works for the government. Every federal district has an US Attorney. If someone were to sue the government in a civil case, an US Attorney would be used to represent the government.


Each federal district also has a supervising US Marshall. Their duties include collecting fines, making arrests, and taking people convicted of crimes to prison. They also work to protect jurors and keep order in the court. The process of becoming a US Marshall involves strenuous physical training and having a successful background check among other things.