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Structure of the Federal Courts

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The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States, the last level of appeals in the judicial process. There are nine justices who sit on the Court, which is in session from October to late June or early July. The justices decide which of the thousands of submitted cases they will hear each session. For a case to be heard before the Supreme Court, four of the nine justices must agree the case is worthy to be presented before the Court. The Court usually only hears cases that might impact the Constitution and its interpretation. If so, a writ of certiorari is issued, which means the case shall be heard by the Court. The Supreme Court is an appeals court, which means it hears cases that have already been in front of a jury or judges.

One level below the Supreme Court is the Federal Court of Appeals. There are 13 United States Courts of Appeals and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. The circuits are broken up regionally. U.S. provinces are also included in these circuits. These courts hear appeals from the lower courts in the states. They, like the Supreme Court, do not hear trial cases. They are strictly for appeals of decisions made in the lower district courts. Three judges sit on a panel to hear the appeals, which are made by lawyers.

The circuits are:

1st: Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Puerto Rico

2nd: Connecticut, New York and Vermont

3rd: Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the U.S. Virgin Islands

4th: Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia

5th: Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas

6th: Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee

7th: Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin

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8th: Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota

9th: Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands

10th: Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming

11th: Alabama, Florida and Georgia

(12th) D.C. Circuit Court

(13th) Federal Circuit Court

On the lowest federal level are the 94 U.S. District Courts and the specialized courts, such as the Tax Court, the Court of Federal Claims, the Court of Veterans' Appeals, and the Court of Federal Appeals. The district courts are the trial courts, where lawyers present their arguments in front of juries or a judge. Each state has at least one district court.

There are various routes a case may take to a federal court. Some cases may originate in a U.S. district court, while others will come from a state court or federal agency. Most cases involving federally recognized Native American tribes are dealt with in federal court since state law does not govern them.

Steps in a Trial

All federal lawsuits start at the District Court level and work their way up. A case is heard and decided upon in one of the District Courts. If either side of the suit is unhappy with the verdict, that party might have that ruling reviewed in the Court of Appeals, the next level of the federal court system. Here, the decision is upheld, overturned, or remanded (sent) back to the lower court for another trial. Yet again, if one of the parties involved in the suit is unhappy with the appellate court decision, they may petition the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their case. However, the Court rarely hears cases unless they involve a matter of great national importance.

This structure of the courts can be seen as a pyramid, with the Supreme Court at the top. This pyramid ensures mistakes that might have been made in the trial courts can be fixed in the appellate court. It also allows the Supreme Court the opportunity to ensure Constitutional issues are properly reviewed.