26 July 2013

Structure of the Federal Courts

This is one in a series of posts designed to describe the structure, procedures, and legal issues of the federal courts (and specifically, the Supreme Court) in plain English. For similar posts, click here.

(The text, and the first image below, are from here).

The federal courts have a three-part structure, as explained in the following diagram:
As the diagram shows, the structure of the federal courts is roughly pyramidal. At the top of the pyramid is the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is the highest court in the federal system. The Supreme Court is often called "the highest court in the land" because it hears appeals from state courts as well as federal courts. The Supreme Court has nine justices and begins its term on the first Monday in October of each year.

The Supreme Court hears most cases on appeal. Litigants wishing to appeal their cases from a state supreme court or from a federal Court of Appeals must file for a "writ of certiorari"  . If four of the nine Justices agree to issue a writ, the Court will hear the case. The Court also has limited "original jurisdiction" in some cases.

The Federal Courts of Appeal are the middle part of the pyramid. The Courts of Appeal are divided into twelve different regions, often known as "circuits". These courts are often known as "circuit courts". Eleven of the twelve circuit courts handle cases from different states -- for example, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta handles cases from Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. The twelfth circuit court is the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and is located in Washington. Additionally, there is also a United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which hears certain specialized cases.

The Federal District Courts are the lowest part of the pyramid. There are 94 judicial districts across the country, including judicial districts in the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Guam.


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