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The Federal Court System…Simplified

I am often asked how our federal court system is set up.  Most people (remembering their grammar school days) know that there is a state court system and a federal court system.  With the prevalence of Supreme Court decisions in the news these days, people often wonder “how do cases get there?”  The short answer is that cases get to the Supreme Court from the state system and from the federal system.  But the focus of today’s post is the federal system.

For purposes of the federal court system, Congress has separated the United States and its territories into 12 distinct areas, called circuits.  The Circuits are identified below:


As you see, each Circuit is comprised of a number of States, with the exception being that the Washington, D.C. has its own Circuit (more on that in a minute).  So, as an example, if a lawsuit is going to be filed in federal court in New Jersey, it will be filed in the Third Circuit.

Generally speaking, the first level court (the trial level) in the federal system is called a District Court.  Thus, following our example, the federal case filed in New Jersey would be filed in the District Court for the District of New Jersey.  Depending on how big the State or District is, it may be divided into geographic divisions.  Thus, you may be filing in the “Northern District of [State]” or the “Eastern District of [State].”  District courts are where juries sit to hear cases.  District court cases are ordinarily heard by one judge.

So what court hears the appeal if you are unhappy with the result?  Again, it is based on the Circuit you are in.  There are 12 “Circuit Courts of Appeal” throughout the Nation.  So if we lost our case in the District Court for New Jersey, and want to appeal it, we would appeal it to the “Third Circuit Court of Appeals.”  If we lost a case at the trial level in Utah, it would be appealed to the “Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals” (see the map above).  Appeals to the Circuit Courts of Appeal are ordinarily heard by three judges, requiring at least two of them to agree on a decision.

For the vast majority of cases, the Circuit Courts of Appeal are the final word on the case.  This is because the only court that is higher than the Circuit Courts of Appeal is the United States Supreme Court.  And since U.S. Supreme Court only hears the appeals of cases it wants to hear (usually around 80 cases per year).  Thus, from the thousands of federal cases that are appealed, the Circuit Courts of Appeal are usually the last stop.

Congress has created a special federal court in Washington D.C., called the “D.C. Circuit” or “Federal Circuit.”  The D.C. Circuit, like the other Circuits, is made up of a District Court (trial level) and a Court of Appeals (appeal level.).  Why does a relatively small area as D.C. get its own Circuit?  Because most of the important federal cases involving federal agency and other federal government decisions are required to be heard in the D.C. Circuit.  For this reason, people will often claim that the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals is the “second-highest” court in the land.  While this is not technically true (it is legally on par with Courts of Appeal from the 12 Circuits), many people view it that way.

All federal judges (both at the trial level and the appeal level) are appointed by the President for life terms.

As you can see, our system places tremendous power in the 12 Circuit Courts of Appeal, which are the last stop for most cases.  Thus, pundits and commentators will often comment on the purported “liberal bias” or “conservative bias” of a certain Circuit Court of Appeal.  In addition, legal scholars keep close tabs on statistics, such as which Circuit Court of Appeals is most often reversed by the Supreme Court.

While I could not possibly cover all the nuances of the federal court system, my hope is that the next time you hear about a case pending in “federal court,” you will have a basic understanding of the system.