Federal Court System

Ever wonder how all those cases you hear about on the news make it to the Supreme Court? Usually, we just find out about them when a ruling is handed down. However, it is quite a journey for a case to make it all the way to the Supreme Court. The long journey a case takes to reach the highest judicial levels is due to the various levels of the federal court system. Below you will gain a better understanding of how our Federal Court System works and how cases make their way up to the supreme court. 

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Table of contents

    Federal Court System Definition

    The United States legal system is a dual court system consisting of the Federal and State Court systems.

    Federal Court System

    The Federal Court System is the court system involved in settling disputes pertaining to the US Constitution, federal statutes, state disputes, treaties, disputes involving more than $75,000 between residents of different states, and bankruptcy.

    State Court System

    The State Court System is the court system that has broad jurisdiction within the state’s territory. The state court system has a broader jurisdiction than the federal court system because it can hear a wider range of cases, from kidnapping to family law.

    Both the state court system and the federal court system have two different types of courts:

    Trial Courts - These courts come to a verdict on a case by looking at evidence and applying legal principles.

    Appellate Courts - These courts verify that the trial court's rulings are constitutional and if the proper law was applied to the ruling.

    Federal Court System Levels

    There are three Federal Court System Levels. They are:

    1. District Court

    2. Circuit Court

    3. Supreme Court

    Federal Court System Pyramid

    Below you will find a federal court system pyramid to gain a visual understanding of the federal court system levels.

    Figure 1 Federal Court System Federal Court System Pyramid, StudySmarterFigure 1. Federal Court System Pyramid, StudySmarter Originals

    Federal Court System Structure

    Article Three of the United States Constitution called for the establishment of a federal court system via the creation of the Supreme Court. While the Constitution did not establish a structure for this court system, it did give Congress the authority to create lower courts.

    Judges within the federal court system serve life terms. These federal judges are appointed by the president and confirmed by Congress. These judges can only be removed from their position if they're not following good behavior, which may result in impeachment, a process conducted by congress. The only judges that do not enjoy this benefit are magistrate court judges and bankruptcy judges.

    Figure 3 Federal Court System Geographic Boundaries of US Court of Appeals and United States District Courts StudySmarterFigure 3. Geographic Boundaries of US Court of Appeals and United States District Courts, US Government, CC-BY-SA-2.5, Wikimedia Commons,

    District Courts

    District courts, or trial courts, are the starting point of where federal trials take place. In other words, they are the courts of original jurisdiction. Every state has between one and four districts, which tally up to 94 district courts throughout the United States. In these district courts, a judge or jury makes a ruling (guilty, non-guilty, liable, not liable) based on the evidence presented and witness testimony.

    Puerto Rico and the District of Colombia have one district court each.

    District court judges appoint magistrate court judges to assist in specific tasks. Some of these functions include issuing search and arrest warrants, conducting initial hearings, and setting bail. Full-time magistrate court judges serve a term of eight years, while part-time judges serve a term of 4 years. However, after their term is over, they may be reappointed.

    Bankruptcy Court

    Each district has its own bankruptcy court. Bankruptcy cases can only be heard by federal courts, not state ones. Bankruptcy judges are appointed by the circuit court and hold their term for 14 years.


    There are more than 670 district court judges in the United States.

    Special Trial Courts

    There are two special trial courts within the district court branch. These special trial courts have jurisdiction nationwide.

    US Court of Federal Claims

    The US Court of Federal Claims was established in 1982 by the Federal Courts Improvement Act. This court hears cases regarding money claims against the federal government, tax refund suits, public contracts, bid protests, vaccine compensation, and patent and copyright matters.

    US Court of International Trade

    The US Court of International Trade was created in 1980 by the Customs Court Act. It hears cases regarding international trade and customs statutes. The court is made up of nine judges, each of whom is assigned to the case. However, if it's a critical case, there will be a panel of three judges.

    Circuit Courts

    There are 13 circuit courts. The 94 district courts are divided into 12 different regions called circuits. Each circuit has one court of appeals, and there is an additional court that listens to specific cases called the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

    Once district courts have given a ruling, the verdict can be appealed and sent to the circuit courts. Circuit courts don't actually retry the case, review evidence, or listen to testimony. Circuit courts simply verify that the district court's decision and procedures were fair and that the correct law was applied.

    Appeals Process

    The appeals process starts with the losing side of the district court case, called the petitioner, asking the circuit court to review the case for any wrongdoing, including the district court violating the US Constitution in its ruling. If the appellate court accepts the case, the petitioner and the respondent (the one arguing against the petitioner) submit their written arguments, called briefs, to be reviewed by the judge prior to court. Once in court, both cases make oral arguments for their case, and the judge delivers a verdict.

    Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit

    The court of appeals for the Federal Circuit is unlike the other court of appeals. It is a very specialized court with nationwide jurisdiction, unlike the other circuit courts that are restricted to their circuit. This court listens to patent cases and any appeals from the US Court of International Trade and the US Court of Federal Claims.

    Bankruptcy Appellate Panels

    Bankruptcy Appellate Panels hear cases that are appealing bankruptcy court decisions. The panel is made up of three judges. However, not every circuit has a bankruptcy panel. Currently, only the 1st, 6th, 8th, 9th, and 10th circuits have established these panels.


    In criminal cases, the government is not allowed to appeal district court decisions.

    Supreme Court

    The Supreme Court is the highest court within the US judicial system. It takes on appellate cases for federal and state court systems (as long as the case pertains to federal law). The cases it takes are only considered once the case has gone through the circuit court or the state Supreme Court. Nine supreme court justices listen to and judge cases.


    Around 7000-8000 appeals requests are filed for Supreme Court consideration. Less than 1% of those appeals are heard.

    In order for the Supreme Court to consider cases, parties have to write a writ of centori, which is a request to have the court hear the case. Once a writ is approved, like circuit courts, the Supreme Court will receive briefs and will listen to oral arguments in court. If the Supreme Court decides to decline a writ, whatever the circuit court or state Supreme Court ruled will be what stands. By the same token, once the Supreme Court makes a ruling on a case, all inferior courts must abide by the ruling and use the case as a precedent.

    Judicial Review

    The Supreme Court has the power to check the power of other branches of government or state governments, and this is called Judicial Review.

    Federal Court System Diagram

    The diagram below will help you better understand the federal court system.

    Figure 3 Federal Court System Federal Court System Diagram, StudySmarterFigure 3. Federal Court System Diagram, StudySmarter Originals

    Federal Court System - Key takeaways

    • The United States has a dual court system which includes the Federal Court System and the State Court System.
    • The Federal Court System deals with settling disputes regarding the US Constitution, federal statutes, state disputes, treaties, disputes involving more than $75,000 between residents of different states, and bankruptcy.
    • There are Three Federal Court System Levels: District Courts, Circuit Courts, and Supreme Court.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Federal Court System

    What is the structure of the federal court system?

    The structure of the federal government begins with the district courts, circuit courts, and then ending with the Supreme court. 

    What are the levels of the federal court?

    There are 3 levels of the federal court. They are district courts, circuit courts, and the Supreme Court. 

    What are the four main characteristics of the federal court system?

    The four main characteristics of the federal court system are: settling US Consitution disputes, having a hierarchal structure, federal justices serving life terms, and Bankruptcy courts being part of the federal court system. 

    What's the difference between the state and federal court systems?

    The federal court system is different from the state court system in that it only hears cases that involve federal statutes, while the state court system hears cases with broader jurisdictions. 

    Why did congress create an expanded federal court system?

    Congress created an expanded federal court system because Article 3 of the United States Consitution gave them the unique authority to do so. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or False: The Federal Court System hears cases regarding family law. 

    Which one is a level of the Federal Court System?

    Which of the following is the starting point of Federal Court cases? 


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