The Federal Court System

How it all works!


The federal court system has three main levels: district courts (the trial court), circuit courts which are the first level of appeal, and the Supreme Court of the United States. There are 94 district courts, 13 circuit courts, and only one Supreme court in the United States.

District and Circuit Courts

The district courts are the general trial courts of the court system. In a district court there will be at least one US District Judge that is appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate for a life term. District courts handle trials that are both civil and criminal that are within the federal court system. The US Attorney is the primary prosecutor for the federal government in his/her area. In any district court you will find a US Marshal that is placed to conduct courtroom and courthouse security, as well as protecting the people of the courtroom.

Some of the tasks of the district court are given to a federal magistrate judge. These Judges are appointed by the district court by a majority vote of the judges. In a criminal matter, magistrate judges may inspect certain cases, issue search warrants, set bail, and other actions along those lines. In a civil case, magistrates often handle a range of issues such as pre-trial motions. In both civil and criminal cases the judge can choose to use a precedent to rule a case if there was a similar case before hand.

After the federal district court has decided a case, the case can be appealed to a US court of appeal. There are thirteen circuits that divide the US into separate regions, the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals has a nationwide jurisdiction over very specific issues. Each circuit has multiple judges, the number of judges on each circuit can range from anything. Circuit court judges are appointed for life by the president and confirmed by the senate. Any case may be appealed to the circuit court once the district court has made a decision. Appeals to circuit courts are first heard by an Appeal panel, the panel consists of three circuit court judges.After briefs are filed, the court will schedule a oral argument in which the lawyers will come before the court the state their arguments/opinions and answer the judges’ questions.

The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court of the US is the highest court in the judicial system, and has the authority to decide cases brought in to federal court or ones brought in state court dealing with federal law. After the circuit court or state supreme court has ruled on a case, either party has a choice to appeal to the Supreme Court. Parties may file a writ of certiorari to the court, for permission for them to hear the their case. Since the court is not required to hear, only 1% of appeals are actually heard by the court, most cases heard by the court are usually issues that are causing conflict across the country. It is also very unlikely that the Supreme Court will ever have original jurisdiction in a case since most every case must go through a circuit or state trial first. When deciding on a ruling for a case the Supreme Court has the power to appellate jurisdiction, or revise an appealed case. The members of the court consist of the Chief of Justice and the eight associate justices all of which are appointed by the President.