The Federal Court System
Think of the federal judicial system as a pyramid: The Supreme Court is on top, followed by an appellate level just below, and the district (or trial) courts at the base. The power flows downward, so the inferior courts are bound by Supreme Court decisions. However, all courts may exercise the same power of judicial review.
The U.S district courts represent the starting point into the federal judicial system. Created by section 2 of the Judiciary Act of 1789, the 94 district courts — staffed by more than 600 judges — are the trial courts for the federal judiciary. Every state (plus the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands) has at least one district court, and the larger states have several (New York, California, and Texas are the only states with four district courts). Each district court has more than one judge presiding, which allows for multiple trials to take place simultaneously (the Southern District of New York, which consists of Manhattan and the Bronx, has the most with twenty-eight judges).
The district courts hear three types of cases. The most common are criminal matters, which are initiated by the U.S. attorney for that district. Federal income tax evasion, counterfeiting U.S. currency, and trafficking narcotics across state lines are examples of criminal cases that would be tried at the district court. It also tries civil cases when the dispute is based on matters of civil law, such as contractual obligations, copyright infringement, unlawful trademark infringement, and the like. The least common are public law cases, in which citizens or private organizations sue governmental agencies for failing to act in accordance with their statutory obligations.
Court of Appeals
Losers at the district court can appeal to the U.S. court of appeals.
The appellate courts are divided among thirteen geographic circuits, and they hear appeals from the district courts located within their respective circuits. The circuits are divided as follows:
Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Puerto Rico
New York, Connecticut, Vermont
Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware
West Virginia, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina
Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana
Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee
Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana
North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas
California, Nevada, Arizona, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Hawaii, Alaska, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands
Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico
Alabama, Georgia, Florida
District of Columbia
The Federal Circuit (no geographic jurisdiction)
The appellate courts have no discretion to refuse cases — they must accept all appeals brought before them. Because they are not trial courts, the appellate courts only review questions of law (whether the law was properly applied to the facts), not questions of fact (such as whether an event really took place). Because the Supreme Court takes very few cases, court of appeals rulings are rarely overturned.
The court of appeals for the Thirteenth (Federal) Circuit has no geographic jurisdiction. Instead, it has nationwide jurisdiction over certain specialized cases involving federal policy, such as patent infringement, or actions in which the United States government is the defendant. Congress created the Federal Circuit in 1982 by consolidating the Court of Claims and the Court of Customs and Patent Appeals.