The Federal Court System
The federal court system consists of courts of original jurisdiction, intermediate courts of appeal, and the United States Supreme Court. The structure of the federal court system is the model for most state court systems. Like all court systems, the federal court system has a very clear hierarchy.
The Constitution specifically reserves certain powers of government to the individual states. Because of this, the federal court system may only hear cases that are specifically described in the Constitution — disputes involving a federal statute or federal constitutional issue, disputes between citizens of separate states, and other specific issues. If the case does not involve one of these issues, the parties must remain in state court.
United States District Courts The primary courts of original jurisdiction in the federal court system are the U.S. District Courts. Population, workload, and other factors determine the district covered by each court. Every state has at least one district. There are also district covering each of the territories owned by the United States and the District of Columbia. The U.S. District Courts are courts of original, general jurisdiction and have authority to hear disputes involving the application of federal statutes or the Constitution, or cases involving disputes between citizens of different states.
Closely related to the district courts are the federal courts of limited jurisdiction. These courts consider specialty cases relating to veterans' affairs, tax matters, international trade, and certain kinds of federal claims. In addition, the federal court system includes courts that hear disputes within the exclusive jurisdiction of federal administrative agencies.
The United States Circuit Courts of Appeal
The federal court system includes several intermediate appellate courts. These courts are known as the United States Circuit Courts of Appeal. The federal system divides the territorial United States into twelve circuits. Each circuit has a court of appeals that hears appellate matters that arise form the districts within that circuit.
The Circuit Courts of Appeal are courts of general appellate jurisdiction. They review all appeals from the courts of original jurisdiction in their circuit. Most of these appeals come from the district courts, but the Circuit Courts of Appeal are also authorized to hear appeals from some courts of limited, original jurisdiction.
The federal court system also includes a special court of appeal called the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. This court has specific authority to hear appeals from most of the specialty courts in the federal court system.
United States Supreme Court
The United States Supreme Court is the highest appellate court in the land. In addition to exercising jurisdiction over appeals from the Circuit Courts of Appeal and the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, the U.S. Supreme Court also has the authority to hear appeals of the final decisions of state supreme courts.
Many people forget that the United States Supreme Court is also a court of original jurisdiction. Article 3 of the United States Constitution grants the Supreme Court original jurisdiction over “all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be Party.” In addition, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is charged with the responsibility of presiding over trials involving the impeachment of the President. Fortunately, the Supreme Court seldom exercises its powers of original jurisdiction.
The U.S. Supreme Court exercises discretion over the cases it will decide. One of the parties must first petition for certiorari. This is a request that the Supreme Court hear a case that presents a significant issue, such as the constitutionality of a statute or the infringement of a fundamental right. The justices grant or deny certiorari on the basis of the importance of the issue presented and whether the facts of the case allow the court to address an important issue.