The federal court system
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The Federal Court System. A 3-layer cake. The Layers of the Federal Court System. The Bottom Layer.

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The Federal Court System

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The federal court system

The Federal Court System

A 3-layer cake

The layers of the federal court system

The Layers of the Federal Court System

The bottom layer

The Bottom Layer

  • The bottom layer of the federal court system is made up of the trial courts (the U.S. District Courts).  Each state has at least one U.S. District Court, and some larger states, such as California and Texas, have up to 4 U.S. District Courts.  For example, Massachusetts has only one U.S. District Court for the entire state, but California has four U.S. District Courts - one for the Central District of California, one for the Eastern District of California, one for the Northern District of California, and one for the Southern District of California. 

The middle layer

The Middle Layer

  • The middle layer of the federal court system is made up of the intermediate courts of appeal, the U.S. Courts of Appeal.  The U.S. Courts of Appeal are placed in circuits, and they hear appeals from the U.S. District Courts (the federal trial courts) in their particular circuit.  There are 12 geographic circuits (11 numbered circuits and one circuit for Washington D.C.) and a Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which hears appeals from the specialized federal trial courts such as the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, which hears claims against the federal government, and the U.S. Court of International Trade, the federal trial court that hears claims concerning customs. 

  • To see which federal circuit your state is in, go to: The Federal Court Locator, and then click on the number that corresponds to your state and you will see the U.S. District Courts in your state. 

The top layer

The Top Layer

  • The top layer of the federal court system is the U.S. Supreme Court which reviews a select number of cases that present important constitutional issues.  The nine Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court meet in conference each week and determine which "petitions for the writ of certiorari" present cases that are worthy of review.  If 4 of the nine Justices vote to hear a case (known as the “rule of 4”), then the U.S. Supreme Court will issue a writ of certiorari down to the U.S. Court of Appeals or to the state supreme court that decided the case, ordering that court to certify the transcripts and the records, and send them up to the U.S. Supreme Court for review. For some more info on the U.S. Supreme Court's review process, see these web sites:

  • Certiorari

  • Choosing and Hearing Cases

  • Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court

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