The relationship between our federal and state court systems here in Arlington tends to confuse people. Because we are based near the center of federal power in Washington, D.C, our firm is surrounded by at least 20 different courthouses.
To help clear up any confusion, we’ve put together a quick guide to explain how the federal and state court systems work together.
Federal Court System
Congress has divided the United States and its territories into 12 geographic areas, called Circuits:
There are basically three levels of courts in the federal system:
- The first level court is the trial court, which is referred to as a “United States District Court.” Each state, as well as the District of Columbia, has at least one District Court. Many states with large populations have several District Courts throughout the State, so these courts carry names that reflect their geographic location, such as the Western District of Virginia.
- The second level courts are the United States Courts of Appeal. These courts are where trial level (District Court) decisions are appealed. The individual courts at this level are called Circuit Courts of Appeal, and there are 12 of them. Each Circuit Court of Appeal hears cases that were appealed within its geographic boundary.
- The third and final level court is the United States Supreme Court, which is based in Washington, D.C. The U.S. Supreme Court hears appeals from the Circuit Courts of Appeal and from the highest state courts in each State.
The Virginia Court System
The state of Virginia has lower and upper trial level courts as well as appeals courts. Generally, cases seeking more than $25,000 are filed in Circuit Court, and smaller cases are filed in General District Court. Trial courts in Virginia are identified by county, so if you file a lawsuit in state court in Fairfax seeking $750,000, then it will be filed in the Fairfax County Circuit Court.
Virginia’s intermediate appeal court is called the Virginia Court of Appeals. It is a limited jurisdiction court, meaning that it only hears appeals pertaining to certain areas of law (domestic, criminal, and worker’s compensation).
Virginia’s highest court is the Supreme Court of Virginia. Interestingly, Virginia is one of the few states that does not allow mandatory appeals in civil cases. This means that the trial level court may be the highest court hearing your case with no further chance for an appeal. This makes it even more important to achieve positive results the first time.
The District of Columbia Court System
The District of Columbia has one trial level court, the District of Columbia Superior Court.
It also has one appellate court, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.
The Maryland Court System
Maryland’s upper trial level courts are called Circuit Courts, while the lower trial courts are called District Courts. As in Virginia, these courts are generally identified by county, so a significant case filed in state court in Montgomery County would be filed in Montgomery County Circuit Court.
Maryland’s intermediate appellate court is called the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. This court hears most civil appeals.
Maryland’s highest court, which hears select appeals, is called the Maryland Court of Appeals.